From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Hunger (Sult) is a novel by the Norwegian author Knut Hamsun and was published in its final form in 1890. Parts of it had been published anonymously in the Danish magazine Ny Jord in 1888. The novel is hailed as the literary opening of the 20th century and an outstanding example of a modernist, psychology-driven literature. It hails the irrationality of the human mind in an intriguing, novel and sometimes humorous tone.
Written after Hamsun's return from an ill-fated tour of America, Hunger is set in fin-de-siecle Kristiania. It recounts the adventures of a starving young man, whose sense of reality is giving way to a delusionary existence on the darker side of a modern metropolis. While he vainly tries to maintain an outer shell of respectability, his mental and physical decay are recounted in detail. His ordeal, enhanced by his inability or unwillingness to pursue a professional career, which he deems unfit for someone of his abilities, is pictured in a series of encounters, which Hamsun himself has described as 'a series of analyses'. In many ways, the protagonist of the novel has traits reminiscent of Raskolnikov, whose author Fyodor Dostoevsky was one of Hamsun's main influences. The influence of naturalist authors like Emile Zola is apparent in the novel, as is his rejection of the realist tradition.
Hunger encompasses two of Hamsun's literary and ideological leitmotifs:
- His insistence that the intricacies of the human mind ought to be the main object of modern literature. Hamsun's own literary program, to describe 'the whisper of the blood and the pleading of the bone marrow', is thoroughly manifest in Hunger.
- His depreciation of modern, urban civilization. In the famous opening lines of his novel, he ambigiously describes Kristiania as 'this wondrous city that no-one leaves before it has made its marks upon him'. The latter is counter-balanced in other of Hamsun's works such as Mysteries (Mysterier) (1892) and Growth of the Soil (Markens Grøde), which earned him the Nobel prize in literature, but also a reputation for being a proto-National Socialist Blut und Boden author.
The novel's first person protagonist, an unnamed vagrant with intellectual leanings, probably in his late twenties, wanders the streets of Norway's capital in a pursuit of nourishment. In four (possibly imagined) episodes he meets a number of more or less mysterious persons, the most notable being Ylajali, a young woman with whom he has a sexual encounter. Overwhelmed by hunger, he scrounges for meals, while his social, physical and mental state are in constant decline. However, he has no antagonistic feelings towards 'society' as such, rather he blames his fate on 'God' or a divine world order. He vows not to succumb to this order and remains 'a foreigner in life', haunted by 'nervousness, by irrational details'. He also plays strange pranks on strangers he meets in the streets. A major artistic and financial triumph for him is when he is able to sell a text to a newspaper, but despite this he finds writing increasingly difficult. Towards the end of the story, he asks to spend a night in a prison cell, fooling the police into believing that he is a well-to-do journalist who has lost the keys to his apartment; in the morning he can't bring himself to reveal his poverty, even to partake in the free breakfast they provide the homeless. Finally, when his existence is at an absolute ebb, he signs on to the crew of a ship leaving the city.
Two films have been made based upon the novel Hunger.