Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Johan Nilsen Nagel

Johan Nilsen Nagel (YOH-hahn NIHL-sehn NAH-gehl), a mysterious traveler who stays for a few summer weeks in a small port on the west coast of Norway. He is rather short in stature, with broad shoulders and a strange expression in his eyes. Although he is only twenty-nine years old, his hair is beginning to turn gray. He seems nonchalant, but he is remarkably inquisitive and often behaves impulsively. When he has drunk too much, he is capable of seemingly endless tirades on many subjects. In spite of his extreme eccentricity and his belief that he is hopelessly alienated from the ordinary life of most people, he is capable of great kindness, generosity, and even bravery. Once, in fact, he risked death to save someone from drowning and received a medal, though in one conversation he says that he bought it. This tendency to tell different versions of the truth to different auditors is characteristic. Even his name is not certain: A former lover who visits him briefly in the town calls him Simonsen. Apparently he possesses a substantial inheritance, but he says on one occasion that he has very little money. He claims to be an agronomist by profession who has traveled widely in the world and has recently been in Finland, and he says that he is himself a Finn, but none of this may be true. He carries a violin case, but it contains only dirty linen, and he at first says that he cannot play the violin; later, he does play and is applauded by his audience. He falls...

(The entire section is 650 words.)

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Nagel appears nearly as mysterious to readers as he does to the townspeople. Despite two long monologues which narrate Nagel’s chaotic thoughts directly, little of substance is conveyed; the remainder of the book, a third-person narrative, reveals remarkably little about his past, his true identity, or even his real name. A woman known as “Kamma,” with whom he was previously involved briefly, visits him in his hotel room, calls him “Simonsen,” is amused by his assumed identity of agronomist, tearfully declares that she still loves him (although she knows he no longer cares for her), accepts the money he proffers, and leaves on the next steamer.

Nagel’s character is mercurial, paradoxical, and exasperating. He alternates between ecstasy and despair, clarity and confusion, impulse and contemplation, self-abasement and self-exaltation, and loathing and love of his fellow human beings. He contemptuously denounces charity as a form of egoism but continually gives away money. In his flights of fancy, his stories of the supernatural, and his fantasies, he appears to be a poet, but he is also given to an incomprehensible garrulousness which embarrasses even him. There are other inconsistencies: The violin case he so prominently displays in his room contains nothing but dirty linen; he denies that he is a rich man but consistently behaves as one; and his luggage appears costly, but he wears a cheap iron ring of some mysterious significance. His...

(The entire section is 595 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Gustafson, Alrik. “Man and the Soil,” in Six Scandinavian Novelists, 1940.

Larsen, Hanna Astrup. Knut Hamsun, 1922.

McFarlane, J.W. “The Whisper of the Blood: A Study of Knut Hamsun’s Early Novels,” in PMLA. LXXI (1956), pp. 563-594.

Naess, Harald. Knut Hamsun, 1984.

Naess, Harald. “Who Was Hamsun’s Hero?” in The Hero in Scandinavian Literature, 1975. Edited by John M. Weinstock and Robert T. Rovinsky.