Knut Hamsun the novelist can be viewed as an outsider who writes about outsiders. Originating in a family that by any standard must be considered poor, Hamsun was keenly aware of the difference between himself and those who possessed power and prestige in society. Power and its opposite, powerlessness, are therefore important themes in his work.
Several of Hamsun’s early novels, such as Hunger and Pan, are narrated in the first person, and their first-person protagonists have character traits and experiences that appear to have been modeled on Hamsun’s own. The later novels are without exception narrated in the third person, but that does not mean that the autobiographical content is less. In addition, one can always trust the narrators in the later works to represent Hamsun’s own views, while unreliability is a feature of some of the early narrators.
The author’s interest in the character of the outsider manifests itself in the careful attention paid to individual psychology in the early novels, as well as in Hamsun’s interest in the exceptional individual’s relation to society and social forces, especially those of social change, which is found in the later works. The early Hamsun hero, who is often an artist or an artistlike figure, attempts to overcome his powerlessness either through his ability to inspire love in a woman of higher social standing or through his art, or both. The typical hero of the later works is either the victim of social change or an embodiment of what is new in modern social and economic life. In the latter case, he is either somewhat of a charlatan, like Tobias Holmengraa in Segelfoss Town, or a dreamer and maker of a multitude of stillborn projects, like August of Vagabonds and the other two volumes of the August trilogy. Common to all of Hamsun’s protagonists is their essential difference from the average person. This difference can be positive or negative, but it always makes for a character whom readers will find interesting.
Hamsun’s earliest novel of significance, Hunger, has as its setting Kristiania, a city where Hamsun had many unhappy experiences. The greater number of his later novels are set in northern Norway, where the author had lived most of his childhood and youth and where he spent a significant part of his manhood. Most of the action in these novels also takes place in the period of Hamsun’s youth, the 1870’s and the early 1880’s. There is therefore good reason to regard his fiction as fundamentally autobiographical. Hamsun never tired of writing about the experiences of his youth, on which he reflected throughout his long career as a novelist.
Hunger, Hamsun’s first novel of any importance, was also the first modern psychological novel in Norwegian literature. It is the story of a young writer of exceptional sensibility who, stripped of all of his property and without any secure means of support, is about to succumb to starvation in Norway’s capital city of Kristiania. This first-person novel is highly autobiographical; Hamsun had experienced the same degree of destitution on several occasions, most notably in the winter of 1886. Such experiences were surely not unusual among artists at the time; the importance of Hunger lies not in its subject matter but rather in the manner in which the author deals with it.
The total narrated time of the novel is two months. The narration is, however, concentrated on four periods during which the narrator suffers greatly from hunger; the author does not appear to be interested in the three periods of time between them when the protagonist seems to live a relatively normal life. The narrator is clearly an individual who earlier was somewhat better off economically, but no reasons for the decline of his fortune are given. Only a few details concerning his identity are mentioned, and these details do not even...
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