by Knut Pedersen

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Themes and Meanings

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Hamsun’s purpose in Mysteries is to depart as far as possible from “ordinary fiction about dances and engagements and excursions and marriages [which] is nothing but reading for sea captains and coachmen looking for an hour’s entertainment.” What Hamsun wishes to explore is human psychology, the mysteries, depths, paradoxes, and irrationalities of human behavior, personality, and identity, the same areas he perceived Dostoevski and August Strindberg to have explored. In an essay entitled “From the Unconscious Life of the Mind,” Hamsun wrote of the need for writers to be concerned with the ineffable:...the secret stirrings that go on unnoticed in the remote parts of the mind, the incalculable chaos of impressions, the delicate life of the imagination seen under the magnifying glass; the random wanderings of those thoughts and feelings; untrodden trackless journeyings by brain and heart, strange workings of the nerves, the whisper of the blood, the entreaty of the bone, all the unconscious life of the mind.

Viewed from this perspective, the novel appears slightly less bewildering. Hamsun has gone some distance toward conveying the mysterious aspects of human consciousness. For example, how is Nagel able to know about the Midget’s secret depravity? He is certainly not able to know by the usual methods of observation, interrogation, logic, or deduction. Even his dreams seem to contradict this view of the Midget. Still, he somehow knows with certainty, and in the end he is proved right. Nagel laughingly derides the inadequacy of the doctor’s materialist view of that “infinite mystery,” the human brain: “so many inches high and so many inches broad, something you can hold in your fist, a lump of thick grayish matter.” The entire concept of rational, empirical knowledge is brought into question as Nagel asks: “What do people really know about life? We fall in line, follow the pattern established by our mentors. Everything is based on assumptions; even time, space, motion, and matter are nothing but supposition. The world has no new knowledge to impart; it merely accepts what is there.”

The novel is filled with mysteries, from the small (how could Nagel have known that the Midget’s name was Johannes?) to the much larger—the five suicide victims, Nagel’s futile passion for Dagny, Kamma’s equally futile passion for Nagel, the strange emptiness of Martha’s life, and the shadowy woman who twice warns Nagel of death.

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