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 obsessively in love with Dagny Kielland, but he also shows an early interest in Martha Gude and proposes marriage to her when Dagny rejects him. Although he tells one character that he lacks the courage to kill himself, and although he often takes a euphoric pleasure in life, he always carries a vial of poison and does finally drown himself. He calls himself “a philosopher who has never learned to think”; he believes in the Nietzschean superman. He is contemptuous of liberalism and parliamentary democracy, and he condemns free thought and defends religion as a source of symbolism. He believes, in other words, in belief itself, rather than in a particular creed.
Johannes Grøgaard (yoh-HAHN-ehs GREH-gohr), who is called the Midget by the people of the town. Although he is a member of a family that included one of the authors of the Norwegian constitution, he is poor and earns his living making deliveries for his coal-dealer uncle. He is forty-three years old, short in stature (though not actually a midget), gray-haired, unattractive, and crippled by a hernia, which he sustained in a fall from a mast when he was a sailor. Forced to perform humiliating feats for the town’s bullies, he is defended by Nagel and later saves Nagel’s life by substituting water for the poison that Nagel always carries in his pocket. He is unselfish, kindhearted, and even noble. Nagel alone realizes that he once behaved dishonorably with Martha Gude.
Dagney Kielland (DAHG-neh CHEHL-ahnd), a pastor’s daughter. A twenty-three-year-old blond with blue eyes and fair skin, she is pretty and even voluptuous. She is engaged to marry a young naval officer who is the son of a wealthy shipowner. When she rejects Nagel’s declaration of love, he accuses her, accurately, of being the victim of her bourgeois upbringing.
Martha Gude (MAHR-teh GEWD -eh), a woman to whom Nagel proposes marriage. She is forty-one years old,...
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and although her father captained a merchant ship, she is now forced to eke out an impoverished existence selling eggs in the marketplace. With her prematurely gray hair (caused, Nagel believes, by suffering) and her black eyes and eyebrows, she possesses a strange and exotic beauty. She is strictly honest and shy; to Nagel, she seems nunlike.
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 strategy of causing others to believe the worst of him is another perplexity. He lies about a medal that he carries, bestowed to him for saving a drowning man, and tells Dagny that he bought it. The truth is that he did earn the medal, but he has doubts about how heroic it may be to save a man who wants to drown.
The Midget is equally problematic. He appears to accept with exemplary Christian submission the many cruelties and humiliations the townspeople (and life) have heaped upon him. He appears to be all forgiveness to his enemies and all gratitude to his benefactor. Yet Nagel comes to believe that the Midget’s behavior is an act beneath which lurks a scoundrel. Inexplicably, Nagel for a time even suspects the Midget of having murdered Karlsen, the divinity student, although the evidence clearly indicates suicide and the Midget’s motive would be difficult to fathom. Knut Hamsun once said that the Midget was Nagel’s alter ego, but this idea does not seem well developed. The powerful influence of Fyodor Dostoevski, with his interest in doubles and divided selves, however, is apparent here as elsewhere in the novel. “Your virtue brings out the brute in me,” Nagel shouts at the Midget, recalling Dostoevski’s perception that the higher part of the soul calls forth the lower part.
Dagny Kielland and Martha Gude appear as opposites: the one, proudly beautiful, self-assured, much sought-after; the other, awkward, plain, and looking older than she is. The two correspond to a story that Nagel tells about the beautiful Klara and her hunchbacked sister (although Martha is by no means deformed or repulsive). True to that story, Dagny does not want Nagel, but she also does not want Martha to have him. Thus she intervenes, successfully destroying his chances with Martha and, ultimately, his hope and his life. It is important to realize, however, that at no point does Hamsun make use of the possibilities of third-person narrative technique to reveal the inner thoughts of his female characters or of any character other than Nagel. Thus, all judgments about character are necessarily colored by Nagel’s view.
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.