Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 842
Knut Hamsun’s title indicates his novel’s subject: The town pump is the center of life in a small town, because it is notoriously a gathering place for gossips. Few of Hamsun’s characters of either gender seem to have much more to do than to participate in the gossip, raillery, and persiflage which in such a town flow like water from the pump. The novel’s pervasive ironic tone arises from the distance between characters’ views of themselves and their importance and the omniscient narrator’s view of these little people and their little lives:Oh, that little anthill! All its inhabitants are occupied with their own affairs, they cross each other’s paths, push each other aside, sometimes they trample each other under foot. It cannot be otherwise, sometimes they trample each other under foot....
This peculiarly misanthropic novel is lacking in plot. Incidents take place, sometimes repercussions are reported (as in the mail robbery) but other times not. Hamsun’s interest is in the daily lives of the people on whom he reports.
The book opens with a dramatic moment in the town’s life: The town’s only steamer, the Fia, owned by Counsel Johnsen of the Wharfside, sets sail on its maiden voyage. Aboard as a deckhand is young Oliver Andersen, son of a widow. After an accident at sea which left him maimed and impotent, he returns home with a wooden leg. Petra, to whom he was engaged, returns his ring, and Oliver and his mother sink into a destitute state. Some days, he rows out to fish, but he realizes little profit from that. One day his luck changes; he discovers an abandoned ship and for a time lives well on money from salvage. When Petra comes back willing to marry him, he thinks it is more good luck. Petra soon has a son whom they name Frank and, later, another son named Abel. Oliver is eventually lucky enough to have a family of five children.
Oliver and Petra’s marriage consists (as it must) of mutual deception and self-deception, lies, and evasions. Still, it is not an unhappy life, judged according to the standards of these characters, who ask nothing of themselves and very little from anyone else. Oliver is not a jealous man and does not have much dignity. He uses his knowledge of his sons’ paternity to blackmail the wealthy Counsel Johnsen into giving him a job as warehouseman. He evades his chief creditor by offering him his wife’s sexual services. As a cripple, he plays on the townspeople’s sympathies to get what advantage he can. He is pathetically content with little: some sweets, a new hat, a colorful tie. When he finds some stolen bank notes, he is ecstatic and becomes, in his own eyes, a great man so long as the money lasts. Any sympathy which can be elicited for Oliver, so deformed in body and spirit, must come as a consequence of his attitudes toward his children. Despite the fact that none of them is his and that this fact has gradually leaked out at the town pump over the years, he is a devoted and proud father. Still, his altruism should not be overstated. He benefits from his children, both socially and economically, and he looks to them for support in his old age.
Frank, the eldest, is to Oliver a brilliant scholar, but Hamsun makes it clear that Frank is actually a dull grind, and, in his pursuit of philology,the very embodiment of sterile academic learning. When Frank eventually reaches his full potential for priggishness by becoming Headmaster of the local school, Oliver is extremely proud:at that moment no one came and told Oliver that he was a childless man. His children were nothing but pure invention on his part, granted, but he had them, during the whole of their childhood and growing-up...he and they knew each other, they called him father,...and now Frank was returning to his native town, a great and learned man.
Abel, his other son, seems to be one of the few sympathetically portrayed characters in the book. Apprenticed early to Carlsen the Blacksmith, he becomes almost a son to him, almost compensating Carlsen for his bitter disappointment in his own son. Intelligent, sensitive, industrious, and a generous contributor to the family’s support, Abel soon takes over the shop. He frequently finds ways to give Oliver extra spending money. In Oliver’s eyes, however, Abel can never compare with Frank. Abel also fails to find favor with the young woman on whom he has set his heart, Little Lydia. As so often is the case in Hamsun’s novels, first love is impossible, but Abel, a realist, is content with another. The remaining children, two daughters, known only as Blue Eyes and Brunette, exist only to be married off to their respective swains, one improbably named Drawing-pin, the other, Edevart, son of Jorgen the Fisherman. (The use of demeaning names is common in the novel.)