Knut Hamsun World Literature Analysis
As a young man, Hamsun keenly felt the difference between himself and those who possessed wealth and power in society. An outsider, he wanted to achieve social and material success, but he also valued the freedom of not having to fulfill the expectations of others. Many of his early protagonists have been placed in a similar position, in that they have to choose between, on one hand, freedom and powerlessness, and, on the other, power and its accompanying ties.
Another characteristic of the young Hamsun was that he believed himself to be talented but unappreciated. This characteristic is also found in his heroes, many of whom are afflicted with an extreme self-absorption stemming from a lack of recognition.
Hamsun’s early novels, such as Hunger and Pan, are inquiries into the minds of hypersensitive, gifted, and lonely individuals. In order to facilitate the exploration of the mind, these books make use of first-person narrators through whose narration the reader is given the illusion of having direct access to the psyches of the narrator-protagonists. These characters often seem to confirm or even celebrate their independence by outrageous acts, such as when the hero of Hunger deliberately eats until he vomits, when Nagel in Mysteries frightens the lowly character called the Midget, and when Glahn in Pan spits into the ear of the Finnish baron. Yet the same characters also strive to fit into their society, pursuing art, women of a higher social standing, or both. Each of these men also tries to climb socially through love. The ties of artistic success and respectability are definitely felt to be ties that bind, and so are the bonds of matrimony, but each of these outsider-protagonists is nevertheless in pursuit of them.
Hamsun’s literary style changed dramatically as he moved into the second half of his career, and so did his thematic concerns. After achieving success, he was not as interested in the character of the lonely outsider as before, and he turned his attention to portraying the workings of social life. He also abandoned the first-person perspective in favor of third-person narration, employing omniscient narrators through which he could have access to the minds of all of his characters. He retained some interest in the exceptional individual, but his concern largely shifted to the social group. At the same time, the author became highly critical of many of the features of modern life, such as industrial production, women’s liberation, and the labor movement.
These objections to modernity first came to the fore in the two novels Børn av tiden (1913; Children of the Age, 1924) and Segelfoss by (1915; Segelfoss Town, 1925), both of which have as their setting the town of Segelfoss in northern Norway. Through a portrayal of the gradual industrialization and modernization of the community, which grows from a few houses scattered around a flour mill into a small town, Hamsun analyzes the process by which the old and semifeudal social order vanishes and is replaced by the social and economic reality of the twentieth century. The author distrusts modern life with its lack of respect for authority, its money-based economy, and its system of education through which talented young people are reduced to clergymen, doctors, and lawyers. Both of the novels have an engaging story line, interesting characters, and several humorous episodes, but the general tone is one of pessimism.
Hamsun’s critique of modern life continues in Growth of the Soil, in which he creates a positive counterpart to the decaying society at Segelfoss. Isak Sellanraa, the protagonist, is a man not only without a past but also without the cultural baggage of contemporary life. The novel relates how he conquers the wilderness of northern Norway and builds a farm, rears a family, and passes on his farm to one of his sons. Isak (his name is the Norwegian form of the name Isaac) is named for an Old Testament patriarch; his values are hard work, patriotism, and the simple life. His is not an entirely paradisiacal existence, however, for civilization closes in on him in the form of a mining operation that goes bankrupt, and he loses part of his family to modern thinking. An important motif in the book is the author’s anti-Americanism. Hamsun placed his story in northern Norway in order to show that there was no need for enterprising people to immigrate to the United States; however, at the end of the book, Isak’s oldest son has no way out but emigration, constituting a powerful indictment of the way of life that Hamsun had come to know while in America.
In the trilogy that consists of Vagabonds, August, and The Road Leads On, many of the themes of Growth of the Soil are continued. A tragic character named Edevart, who does not have the strength to resist the allure of the modern world, is corrupted and leaves Norway for the United States, where he does not feel at home. Returning home he feels equally out of place, and his lack of a sense of belonging extends to his relationship with women. His counterpart, August, is unsettled from the beginning; his ideology is completely in line with that of high capitalist industrialism, although his acts are those of a parasite. Other characters exemplify Hamsun’s positive values but are given comparatively little space. The anti-American theme is continued in Hamsun’s final novel, The Ring Is Closed, which is a dark and pessimistic book.
First published: Sult, 1890 (English translation, 1899)
Type of work: Novel
A budding writer starves in the capital city of Christiania (now Oslo), Norway.
Hunger, which was based on Hamsun’s many unhappy experiences in Norway’s capital city of Christiania, was one of the first modern psychological novels in world literature. Told in the first person, it is the story of a young writer of exceptional sensibility, who, stripped of all of his property and without any reliable means of support, is about to perish from extreme...
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