Knut Hamsun World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2521

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...

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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 hunger. The book contains little action in the traditional sense. With the exception of the story of a few attempts to secure employment and the account of a brief encounter with a lady of the middle class, the text consists almost exclusively of reports of the narrator’s mental life during periods of starvation.

The experience of hunger was surely not uncommon among artists at the time and the social consequences of hunger figure prominently in the naturalistic literature of the Scandinavian countries. The importance of Hunger lies not in its subject matter but rather in the manner in which the author deals with it, for his focus is on a portrayal of the strange workings of the mind while in an altered state resulting from the lack of nourishment. To this end, Hamsun uses a stream-of-consciousness technique through which 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 mind.

The narrator views himself as a completely committed artist, and his concern is both to prevent his hunger from negatively affecting the sensibilities that make him capable of producing art and to use his unpleasant experiences in his art. The narrator’s tendency toward self-observation can be viewed both as a part of his artistic project, the gathering of material for a novel that he wants to write, and as a means of making certain that the needs of his body do not overcome his mental or artistic needs.

Little is learned about the narrator’s past throughout the book, and only a few details concerning his identity are provided. These details do not even include the mention of his name, but it is clear that he is an individual who, in the past, has been somewhat better off economically; it is possible to deduce that he, like Hamsun himself, worked in other occupations before devoting his life entirely to writing. The novel shows, however, that he is not exclusively concerned with examining his own mind for the purpose of his art.

A mysterious young middle-class woman named Ylajali, to whom he is attracted, appears to have little artistic significance to him; his interest in her seems to originate in a concern for social position. The narrator’s pursuit of Ylajali can be read as an alternative means to the kind of success that, so far, he has not been able to achieve through his art. That makes the narrator-protagonist of Hunger appear to be a practical man, who, perhaps like his creator Hamsun, views art as a means of social advancement at least as much as an end in itself.


First published: Pan, 1894 (English translation, 1920)

Type of work: Novel

A young lieutenant experiences love and the dynamics of power during a summer in northern Norway.

Pan has a rather complex narrative structure. It is a first-person novel in which the main part of the story is told by the narrator-protagonist, Glahn, two years after the events that are being narrated took place. The main part is followed by an epilogue, also in the first person, in which the story of Glahn’s death is told by an unnamed hunting companion.

The main story takes place in northern Norway during the summer months of the year 1855. Glahn, a lieutenant who has obtained leave from his commission, is living a rather primitive life as a hunter and fisherman in a forest cabin near the trading post Sirilund. He is tired of civilization, he says, and has left behind the norms of cultured society, being unable to get along well with cultivated people. In narrating his story, Glahn tells both about the external events of his life out in the wilderness and about his reflections on existence, and it is clear that he is trying to become an artist.

During visits to the trading post, Glahn becomes acquainted with Edvarda, the daughter of the trader Mack. Being attracted to her both because of her social position and for her own sake, he tries to win her, but Edvarda is emotionally unpredictable, and a love-hate relationship, in which they take turns torturing each other, develops. Glahn also enters into a sexual relationship with Eva, who, despite her marriage to the local blacksmith, is the mistress of Edvarda’s father, Mack, whom Glahn displaces. Attempting to play the role of the Greek god Pan, Glahn also seduces a young goatherd named Henriette.

Much of the story deals with the battle between Glahn and Mack over Eva, as well as with Glahn’s attempts to get rid of two rivals in his relationship to Edvarda—the local doctor and a Finnish baron who is conducting scientific research in the area. Glahn, while present at a party and slightly inebriated, deliberately offends the baron by spitting into his ear. He also offends the doctor by treating him like a dog, whistling to him and coaxing him to jump over his gun as if it were a stick. Neither the doctor nor the baron is willing to lower himself to Glahn’s level, but Mack, who has been accustomed to holding unchallenged power in the area, is not afraid of facing him. Shrewd and manipulative, Mack decides to show Glahn that he is the more intelligent of the two by forcing him to abandon a project. Glahn has been planning to blast some rock out of a seaside cliff as a final salute to the baron, who is leaving by ship, but Mack orders Eva to tar a boat below the cliff, thinking that Glahn will not risk hurting her. Glahn, however, has less regard for Eva’s life than for his own pride, and the result is that Eva dies in the explosion.

Glahn behaves erratically on other occasions also. One of the most disturbing instances is found in the book’s epilogue, which relates how he goads a hunting companion into shooting and killing him while in India. Not necessarily a happy story, Pan clearly sets forth Hamsun’s view of the relationship between love, power, and the temperament of the artist.

Growth of the Soil

First published: Markens grøde, 1917 (English translation, 1920)

Type of work: Novel

A homesteader carves out a farm from raw nature in northern Norway but later finds his work overtaken by civilization.

Starting with the novels Children of the Age and Segelfoss Town, Hamsun severely criticized the decline of traditional society and the problems associated with modernization. This critique was continued in Growth of the Soil, in which Hamsun both wanted to show the full extent of the evils of the modern age and to offer his portrait of modernity against the backdrop of the story of a heroic homesteader, Isak Sellanraa.

Like some of the outsiders in Hamsun’s novels from the 1890’s, Isak has no history when he appears in the wilderness, looking for a place to settle. Hamsun emphasizes that his presence is as natural as that of the wild animals of the area, and shows that his premodern approach to living is both healthier and more natural than a life based on a monetary economy. Isak works hard, clearing land and building shelter for himself and his farm animals with simple hand tools, and his work is portrayed as more authentic than the mechanized and highly capitalized alternative.

As Isak’s farm grows and prospers, he is able to attract a woman, Inger, whose harelip makes her willing to settle for the strong but physically unattractive homesteader. Inger bears two healthy sons, Eleseus and Sivert, but her third child is a girl with a harelip. Worried that the child will have a miserable life, Inger gives birth to her in secret and kills her before anyone sees her. While she is generally unsentimental, Inger deeply mourns her daughter.

Inger’s criminal act is discovered and she is sentenced to six years in prison in the city of Trondheim. While Inger is basically a good person, another mother and child murderess in the novel, a servant named Barbro, is not. Barbro lacks the sound instincts that could have allowed her to bond with Axel, the homesteader who wants her as his wife.

When Inger returns from prison after completing her sentence, she brings many new ideas that she learned while she was away from home. She also encourages Eleseus, her first-born son and heir to the Sellanraa farm, to get a job in town. This experience makes Eleseus unfit for farm life and he eventually has no choice but to leave Norway for the United States.

The biggest threat to the rural values depicted by Hamsun, however, comes from the discovery of copper ore on Isak’s land. The local sheriff, Geisler, helps Isak obtain title to his homestead and is a generally helpful adviser to him, but he is also the agent through which the copper mine is developed, and modernity invades Isak’s paradise. Ultimately, however, the mine fails, while Isak’s farm continues to prosper and is taken over by his son Sivert, who represents the next generation of the family.

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