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Hunger ( ) is a novel by the Norwegianmarker author Knut Hamsun and was published in its final form in 1890. Parts of it had been published anonymously in the Danishmarker magazine Ny Jord in 1888. The novel is hailed as the literary opening of the 20th century and an outstanding example of modern, psychology-driven literature. It hails the irrationality of the human mind in an intriguing and sometimes humorous novel. It has been translated into English three times: in 1899 by Mary Chavelita Dunne (under the alias George Egerton), by Robert Bly in 1967, and by Sverre Lyngstad, whose translation is considered definitive.

Written after Hamsun's return from an ill-fated tour of America, Hunger is loosely based on the author's own impoverished life before his breakthrough in 1890. Set in late 19th century Kristianiamarker, the novel 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 described as 'a series of analyses.' In many ways, the protagonist of the novel displays traits reminiscent of Raskolnikov, whose creator, Fyodor Dostoevsky, was one of Hamsun's main influences. The influence of naturalist authors such as 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 the novel, he ambiguously describes Kristianiamarker as 'this wondrous city that no one leaves before it has made its marks upon him.' The latter is counterbalanced in other of Hamsun's works such as Mysteries (Mysteries) (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.

Plot summary

The novel's first-person protagonist, an unnamed vagrant with intellectual leanings, probably in his late twenties, wanders the streets of Norwaymarker's capital in pursuit of nourishment. In four episodes he meets a number of more or less mysterious persons, the most notable being Ylajali, a young woman with whom he has a semi-sexual encounter. This woman haunts him and he attempts to refind her to no avail. The character falls into traps of his own making, and with a lack of food, warmth and basic comfort, his mind turns slowly to ruin. Overwhelmed by hunger, he scrounges for meals, at one point nearly eating his own (rather precious) pencil. 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. He experiences a major artistic and financial triumph when he sells a text to a newspaper, but despite this he finds writing increasingly difficult. At one point in 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, since this would bring their attention to the fact that he'd lied about his identity and would land him in further troubles. Finally as the book comes to close, when his existence is at an absolute ebb, he signs on to the crew of a ship leaving the city.

Screen versions

Two films have been made based upon the novel Hunger.


*Humpal, Martin. The Roots of Modernist Narrative: Knut Hamsun's Novels Hunger, Mysteries and Pan International Specialized Book Services. 1999 ISBN 82-560-1178-5
*Braatøy, Trygve. Livets Cirkel (The Circle of Life: Contributions toward an analysis of Knut Hamsun's work). J.W. Cappelenes Forlag 1929] ISBN 82-02-04315-8 1979 edition.

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