Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3991
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...
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- Critical Essays
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 include his name.
The novel also has but little action in the traditional sense. With the exception of the story of a few attempts made by the narrator to secure employment, as well as the tale of a brief encounter with a lady of the middle class, the text is almost exclusively made up of reports of the narrator’s mental life during periods of extreme hunger.
The stream-of-consciousness technique employed by Hamsun is effective in portraying the strange workings of the mind while in an altered state resulting from a lack of nourishment. The reader is given access both to the perceptions, moods, and strange ideas of the narrator and to his reflections on his own state of consciousness. The narrator perceives himself as an artist, and his chief concern is twofold: on one hand, to prevent his hunger from negatively affecting those sensibilities that make him capable of producing art and, on the other hand, to utilize his unpleasant experiences in his art. The narrator’s strong tendency toward self-observation can be viewed both as a means of making sure that the demands of his body do not conquer his mental or artistic needs and as part of his artistic project, the gathering of material for the novel presented to the reader.
Hamsun is interested not in the physical effects of starvation per se, but only in its consequences for the mind. This attitude stands in direct opposition to the prevailing trends in Scandinavian literature at the time. A case in point is Arne Garborg’s novel Bondestudentar (1883; students from the country), in which the protagonist, like the narrator in Hunger, suffers from starvation in the city of Kristiania. The difference is that, unlike Hamsun, Garborg portrays only the physical and social consequences of hunger. In contrast, the attitude of Hamsun’s narrator toward his hunger could indeed be termed one of experimentation.
It is a question, however, whether Hamsun the artist was as exclusively concerned with the mental side of life as he claimed to be in his 1891 lectures. The narrator’s attention to a mysterious young woman of the middle class does not seem to originate in any specific interest in art, but rather in a concern with the social position that can be won by a successful artist or by a young man who has success in any endeavor. The narrator-protagonist in Hunger, like his creator Hamsun, can also be regarded as a practical man for whom art is a means of social advancement at least as much as an end in itself.
In Hunger, Hamsun’s autobiographical tendencies manifest themselves both in his choice of subject matter and in the location of the action. In Pan, the story occurs at a fictional place in northern Norway called Sirilund, but the social milieu is the same as that Hamsun had known so well in his youth. In this novel, the theme of art is subservient to that of love, but the social function of love in Pan is similar to that of art in Hunger.
Unlike thenarrative situation of Hunger, that of Pan is quite complex. The novel consists of two parts, the main text and a brief epilogue titled “Glahn’s Death.” Both the text proper and the epilogue are narrated in the first person, but while the main part of the book is narrated by its protagonist, a lieutenant named Thomas Glahn, the epilogue is narrated by his hunting companion and killer, a man whose name is not given.
The main story takes place during the summer months of the year 1855. Lieutenant Glahn is an outsider who has obtained leave from his commission and who is now leading a rather primitive life as a hunter and fisherman in a cabin near the trading post Sirilund. Tired of urban life and incapable of getting along well according to the norms of cultured society, he has immersed himself in nature, attempting to live as part of it. His intermediary position between nature and culture is symbolized by the fact that his cabin is located where the forest meets the fields surrounding Sirilund. In narrating the story, Glahn tells both about the external events of his life in nature and about his reflections on his existence, and from his story, it would appear that he is entirely successful in his attempts to live as an integral part of the natural world. It is clear, however, that he is far too reflective to lay claim to a natural existence entirely unmediated by culture. This and other signs of unreliability are of great significance to any interpretation of the book.
During visits to the trading post at Sirilund, Glahn meets the young Edvarda, the daughter of the post’s owner, the trader Mack. Glahn falls in love with Edvarda, who—because of her father’s wealth—is his social superior. A love-hate relationship develops between the two, and each tortures the other in turn.
Glahn’s love for Edvarda is not an end in itself, however, but rather a means to social advancement. Glahn would simply like to inherit Mack’s position of wealth, power, and prestige by marrying his only daughter. Edvarda, on her part, sees in Glahn an opportunity to get away from Sirilund. Glahn’s true intentions are revealed by the fact that he has an affair with a young woman named Eva, the wife of a local blacksmith, as soon as he discovers that Mack uses her to satisfy his erotic needs. For Glahn, the affair is little more than a way symbolically to assume Mack’s social position, but when the trader discovers it, he punishes them by having Eva killed and by forcing Glahn to leave the place.
Glahn tells the story two years later. The outward reason for his telling the story at this time is that he has just received a message from Edvarda, who is now married to another man. That Glahn writes down the story establishes as a fact, however, something that is at best implied in the text—namely, that Glahn must also be regarded as an artist. It is necessary to be aware of that when the epilogue, “Glahn’s Death,” is considered.
The epilogue bears the date 1861, which places its narration four years after the telling of the main part of the story. There is, however, no indication of how much time has passed between the events themselves and the telling of them.
The story in the epilogue is about how Glahn causes the unnamed narrator to take his life by making him jealous and taunting him. Glahn apparently wants to die, and this desire has at least in part been brought about by another letter from Edvarda, who cannot forget him. Glahn’s killer writes down the story ostensibly in order to make it clear to the dead man’s family that there is no longer any need to inquire about his whereabouts through newspaper advertisements. He seems to be unaware that by so doing, he incriminates himself.
The signs of unreliability that can be found in the main portion of the novel, however, together with the curious narrative situation in the epilogue, make it reasonable to suspect that the narrator of the epilogue is indeed Glahn himself, who has simply made up the story of his death as a final attempt to inflict pain on Edvarda. This interpretation is quite reasonable in view of the fact that when Edvarda learns of Glahn’s supposed death, as it is told in Hamsun’s later novel Rosa, it indeed causes her much grief.
Pan is one of Hamsun’s most complex novels. Many critics regard it as his finest work from the 1890’s, and some claim that it is his masterpiece. It clearly sets forth Hamsun’s view of the relationship between power, love, and the artistic temperament.
Published in 1915, Segelfoss Town stands in the middle of Hamsun’s oeuvre. A continuation of Children of the Age, which appeared two years earlier, it is also composed in such a manner that it can be read as a separate work. If its criticism of contemporary society is to be evaluated, however, it is helpful to have some familiarity with the earlier work.
Segelfoss is a small community in northern Norway, consisting mainly of a flour mill and the large estate from which the community has derived its name. For generations, the farm and the mill have been owned by the Holmsen family, which by its inherited wealth and benevolent aristocracy has lent order and stability to the community. In Children of the Age, however, it is learned that business has been going poorly for the Holmsens, and when an opportunity to sell the flour mill arises, its owner eagerly accepts.
The new owner is Tobias Holmengraa, a local boy of peasant stock who has accumulated a fortune by means of rather mysterious dealings while abroad. Holmengraa is, within Hamsun’s artistic universe, a relation of both the protagonist of Hunger and Thomas Glahn, the chief difference being that Holmengraa has both the imagination and the financial wherewithal to attempt to realize his social daydream. Once in the possession of the flour mill, he creates a new age for Segelfoss, which may now rightfully refer to itself as a town. There is an abundance of employment and, consequently, money to be had; a trader, a distant relative of Holmengraa, is asked to come and set up a store; a telegraph station is established; and both a lawyer and a doctor arrive.
Thus, new centers of power are created. The most obvious one is Holmengraa’s business, but the store also becomes a means to the accumulation of wealth, especially when Theodor, the son of the original owner, takes over after his father. Through his portrayal of social and economic change, Hamsun analyzes the process by which the old and semifeudal social order vanishes and is replaced by a twentieth century social reality. He strongly voices his distrust of the new, mainly through the character Baardsen, the telegraphist, who is also a musician, something of a philosopher, and a drunkard. A character who is split and divided, he is by far the most interesting figure in the book; in the end, he takes his own life, unable to bear the tension in his existence.
The third-person narrator also allows his voice to be heard directly. What he finds most objectionable in modern life is the absence of respect for authority, especially that of the employer, the new money-based economy, and the fact that talented young people leave the class into which they have been born and through education degenerate into clergymen, doctors, and lawyers. The view that is advanced by the author is thus a totally reactionary one, one that Hamsun later, unfortunately, did not distinguish from the ideology of the Nazi Party and that eventually caused his treason during World War II.
Segelfoss Town, however, is much more than a reactionary tract. If justice is to be done to it as a work of art, it must also be read as a novel about life in all of its variety. In the end, Holmengraa goes bankrupt as a result of his emphasis on the outward show of wealth and his lack of sound business practices, the flour mill is shut down, and the future becomes uncertain for the many workers who have depended on this entrepreneur and charlatan. The disaster is not a victory for Hamsun’s reactionary views, however, but rather one for the inhabitants of Segelfoss, who despite economic misfortune find a way to get by. Life itself continues independent of the fates of individuals.
Growth of the Soil
Hamsun had used Segelfoss Town as a means of voicing his distrust of the development of modern society. In Growth of the Soil, he expressed the same norms, but he attempted to prescribe a positive remedy for social ills by giving his public an example worthy of emulation. His rhetorical success is perhaps most clearly indicated by the fact that the novel earned for him the Nobel Prize in 1920.
The protagonist of Growth of the Soil is Isak Sellanraa, a man without a past but also without any of the cultural baggage of contemporary life. One day, he is walking through the wilderness somewhere in northern Norway, searching for a place to settle down and make a home for himself, his situation not unlike that of many Norwegian immigrants to the United States. The American immigrant pioneer was a well-known figure in Norway; Hamsun used the comparison in order to point out that breaking new soil in one’s own land is better than emigrating.
The first part of the book details the growth of Isak’s farm as he clears the land, builds shelter, marries a woman named Inger, and acquires farm animals. The qualitative difference between the man and his wife is indicated by his name, that of an Old Testament patriarch, while her name, Inger, is a common one. Inger is an entirely ordinary person; she casts her lot with the antisocial Isak only because she has a harelip and is therefore unable to find a husband in any other way. Inger is possessed by fear that one of her children will inherit her defect, which indeed happens to her third baby, a girl. Knowing the suffering that is in store for the infant, Inger kills her, later confesses her crime, and is sent to prison for five years.
During this time, she has an operation on her lip, is educated in modern life, and, in Hamsun’s view, is spoiled by civilization. When she returns, she is no longer satisfied with the simple life of the farm. This division in Isak’s family is then extended to the children; one of his two sons remains a solid young man, while the other is sent to town and is finally fit for nothing but emigration to the United States.
While Isak is struggling to maintain his (and Hamsun’s) values in his home, civilization closes in on the farm, both through the arrival of more settlers and through the discovery of copper ore in a nearby mountain, which leads to the establishment of a mine. The catalyst in this development is a curious character named Geissler, who is a carrier of both Hamsun’s values and their opposites. Geissler makes Growth of the Soil a complex novel whose value system is perhaps not as clear as it has traditionally been thought to be, and this lack of univocality is indicated by his referring to himself as “the fog” in an important monologue at the end of the book.
Growth of the Soil is undoubtedly Hamsun’s most widely read novel. Seductive in both rhetoric and style, the novel makes it difficult for the reader to maintain a proper distance from the author’s norms. As a work of art, it is splendid; its values, however, like those of Segelfoss Town, are some of those that later led Hamsun to embrace the Nazi ideology.
The first volume of a trilogy and the most significant novel from Hamsun’s later years, Vagabonds is set mainly in northern Norway. It is centered on a community named Polden, similar to Segelfoss but much smaller. There is, for example, no social or economic leader on the order of a Holmsen or even a Holmengraa. In the novel, the Polden environment is significant as a laboratory for the social change that Hamsun so thoroughly despises, but it is also important as the background for one of Hamsun’s most tragic characters and for one of his most comical ones.
The tragic character is Edevart, who as a young boy has one of his decisive experiences in the first few pages of the book. During the wintertime, when all the adult males in the community are away at the Lofoten fisheries, Polden is visited by two foreign-looking confidence men who, by appealing to the inhabitants’ need for adventure, succeed in tricking them out of whatever small amounts of money they have. Edevart, who at first is taken in by them but then sees through their sham, thus receives his initiation into the deceit and hollowness of the world. As a result, he loses both some of his innocence and much of that innate faith that, if shielded from the attacks of the world, would have aided him in living a life of happiness and satisfaction. This episode is an important one, for it presents Hamsun’s thesis that modern civilization is essentially a similar kind of confidence game, albeit on a grander scale, and that its effects on people are similar to those of the strangers on Edevart.
Edevart has another important experience a few years later, when as a young man he encounters a woman named Lovise Magrete Doppen, with whom he falls deeply in love and who initiates him sexually. Shortly thereafter, Lovise Magrete accompanies her husband, an ex-convict who was in jail when Edevart met her, to the United States. This man, like one of Isak’s sons in Growth of the Soil, is so depraved that he is fit for nothing but emigration. This experience causes Edevart to lose his trust in the power of love, much as his experience with the confidence men had caused him to lose faith in people. As a result, Edevart becomes a “vagabond in love.”
These and similar experiences lead to Edevart’s complete demoralization. Dishonesty takes the place of his original honesty, restlessness replaces his sense of belonging in Polden, and dissatisfaction takes the place of his ability to be happy in limited circumstances. The fundamental cause of Edevart’s moral decline, however, is not a defect in his personality but the changes that society is undergoing. They include the capitalization of agriculture, the process of industrialization, and the change to a monetary economy, all of which Hamsun opposes. Edevart’s development parallels that of society at large.
Hamsun’s views, however, are somewhat equivocal. The ambiguity is expressed mainly through the character August, who is one of only two important figures in Vagabonds but the clear protagonist of the trilogy of which the novel is the first volume. August has no close relatives; like Tobias Holmengraa in Segelfoss Town, he has spent a number of years abroad, and, like Tobias, August is a dreamer. In both Vagabonds and the trilogy as a whole, he is an embodiment of the social forces to which Hamsun is opposed. One would, therefore, expect that August should be portrayed as a villain of the highest order, but that is not the case. The author is charmed by him, admires him, and causes the reader to share that admiration. At the same time, Hamsun is critical of what August represents. August therefore expresses Hamsun’s ambivalent attitude toward those forces in society that he so soundly condemns. This might be taken as an indication that the author’s values are confused, but it could also simply mean that Hamsun, in the final analysis, views life as more complex than any theory or ideology. His tendency to cling to an ideology is, however, present in Vagabonds as well as in Growth of the Soil and Segelfoss Town.
To many present-day readers, Hamsun may seem like a reactionary writer whose values are out of touch with the modern world. There is a fundamental irony in this, as the charge is similar to that which he, in his youth, leveled against his immediate predecessors in Norwegian literature. Even though many of today’s critics thus find little to admire in Hamsun’s value system, his books nevertheless have the power to charm new generations of readers. Hamsun is a master of his craft, of rhetoric, and of style, and he is therefore a true artist whose books attract readers not because of but in spite of some of the values they express.