Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Women at the Pump shocked Hamsun’s readers, particularly since it was published in 1920, the same year in which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his great paean to the common man, Markens grode (1917; Growth of the Soil, 1920). One commentator wittily remarked that if there had been an award for the least idealistic work of literature—in addition to the Nobel Prize’s award for the most idealistic and uplifting—then Hamsun might have won both for that year.

Critics have attempted to explain the novel’s misanthropy, citing Hamsun’s disillusionment because the Germans, with whom he had sympathized, lost World War I, the war the Postmaster calls “the Englishman’s war.” Hamsun’s lifelong Anglophobia is evident in the Postmaster’s denunciation:your Englishman has a religion of his own in this world and justifies it in an entirely English manner. He reduces one people after another to subjection, takes away their independence, castrates them and makes them fat and quiet. Then one day the Englishman says: Let us now be just according to the Scriptures! And so he gives the eunuchs something which he calls Self-government.

Some critics associate Hamsun’s increasingly elitist and antidemocratic views with the years he spent in the United States (1882-1884 and 1886-1888). His book Fra det moderne Amerikas aandsliv (1889; The Spiritual Life of Modern America, 1969) is a satirical record of his experiences and expresses his views that cultural advance and refinement is not likely to take place in a democracy.

Like Strindberg, Hamsun was drawn toward German virility, masculinity, and militarism. Unlike Strindberg, he lived long enough to have to reexamine the implications of his antidemocratic views. He did so in Paa glengrodde stier (1949; On Overgrown Paths, 1967), a book of reflections written while he was awaiting trial for his pro-Nazi views during World War II. The book belies the court’s conclusions about Hamsun’s “permanently impaired mental faculties,” but its author remains an enigma.

Traditionally, satire has the instruction and improvement of its audience in view. In The Women at the Pump, Hamsun’s excessive and vitriolic misanthropy is more likely to repel than reform.