Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

It would be difficult to enumerate all Hamsun’s satirical targets in The Women at the Pump, but clearly two of the larger ones are education and democracy. Hamsun holds out little hope for those who are educated in the pedantic manner of Oliver’s son Frank and even less for those whom Frank will instruct. Frank’s headmaster is himself a philologist:[N]obody could make less boast of his philology. He never mentioned the leaders, the men of original research; probably he knew nothing about them, scarcely their names even, what had he to do with genius! His vocation was not to make discoveries, he had only to teach, just teach. Teach so as just to make a living, teach so as just to be able to conduct his pupils through their lessons to the examination.

On this philosophy of education as the transmission of truly dead knowledge, the narrator comments: “A meagre and melancholy existence, poverty and intellectual darkness, decline, wear and tear, blindness. If only it were madness, that would be decreed by fate, a folly sent from Heaven; but this was human, ape-like.”

At the same time, there is no Rousseauistic correlation between the simple and the good. The philogists and educators have no corner on apelike behavior, as the novel demonstrates. There is room to doubt what kind of society can be made from the Olivers of the world:There he goes, limping home. He is something of a wreck, a little imperfect in himself; but what is perfection! The life of the town realizes its image in him, it is a crawling life, but it is just as busy for all of that. It begins in the morning and lasts till night, then the people lie down to rest. And some of them lie down under a tarpaulin.

In a passage such as this (with which the novel concludes), Hamsun’s sardonic, antidemocratic side is unmistakable.