Hunger (Hamsun novel)

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Hunger first edition.jpg
First edition
AuthorKnut Hamsun
Original titleSult
TranslatorGeorge Egerton
Robert Bly
Sverre Lyngstad
GenrePsychological novel
Philosophical novel
Publication date

Hunger (Norwegian: Sult) is a novel by the Norwegian author Knut Hamsun published in 1890. Extracts from the work had previously been published anonymously in the Danish magazine Ny Jord in 1888. The novel has been hailed as the literary opening of the 20th century[1] and an outstanding example of modern, psychology-driven literature.[2] Hunger portrays the irrationality of the human mind in an intriguing and sometimes humorous manner.


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 Kristiania (now Oslo), 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 in Crime and Punishment; the author, Fyodor Dostoevsky, being one of Hamsun's main influences.[3] The influence of naturalist authors such as Émile 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 opening lines of the novel, he ambivalently describes Kristiania as "this wondrous city that no one leaves before it has made its marks upon him." The latter is counterbalanced in other Hamsun works, such as Mysteries (Mysterier, 1892) and Growth of the Soil (Markens Grøde, 1920), which earned him the Nobel prize in literature but also brought about claims of his being a proto-National Socialist Blut und Boden author.[4]

Plot summary[edit]

The novel's first-person protagonist, an unnamed vagrant with intellectual leanings, probably in his late twenties, wanders the streets of Norway's capital, Kristiania (Oslo), in pursuit of nourishment. Over four episodes he meets a number of more or less mysterious persons, the most notable being Ylajali, a young woman with whom he engages in a mild degree of physical intimacy.

He exhibits a self-created code of chivalry, giving money and clothes to needy children and vagrants, not eating food given to him, and turning himself in for stealing. Essentially self-destructive, he thus falls into traps of his own making, and with a lack of food, warmth and basic comfort, his body turns slowly to ruin. Overwhelmed by hunger, he scrounges for meals, at one point nearly eating his own (rather precious) pencil and his finger. His social, physical and mental states 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 experiences an 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, posing as a well-to-do journalist who has lost the keys to his apartment. In the morning he cannot bring himself to reveal his poverty or even partake in the free breakfast provided to the homeless. Finally, as the book comes to a close, when his existence is at an absolute ebb, he signs on to the crew of a ship leaving the city.

Translations into English[edit]

Hunger was first translated into English in 1899 by Mary Chavelita Dunne (under the alias George Egerton). A translation by Robert Bly was published in 1967, and a third by Sverre Lyngstad in 1996, which is considered by many to be definitive.[5]

In his afterword, Lyngstad claims that the 1899 George Egerton translation had been bowdlerized, in relation to the narrator's wandering sexual thoughts and actions. It is, however, the 1924 Grosset & Dunlap edition of her translation that was censored, notably the voyeurism scene with the landlord and his wife and the sailor.[6][7] He also states that Robert Bly's translation misses the mixing of the present and past tenses of the original, suggestive of a febrile mind, which Bly replaced by a uniform past tense. He also noted that Bly's translation confused Oslo's streets and places.[8]


Hunger has been adapted into the following films:


  1. ^ "The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun. They were completely Hamsun's disciples: Thomas Mann and Arthur Schnitzler (...) and even such American writers as Fitzgerald and Hemingway." Isaac Bashevis Singer in 'Knut Hamsun, Artist of Skepticism', preface to the Robert Bly translation.
  2. ^ Brynildsen, Aasmund (1973). Svermeren og hans demon (in Norwegian). Oslo, Norway: Dreyers Forlag. ISBN 82-09-01137-5.
  3. ^ Nag, Martin (1998). Geniet Knut Hamsun – en norsk Dostojevskij [Knut Hamsun the Genius – a Norwegian Dostoevsky] (in Norwegian). Oslo, Norway: Solum. ISBN 978-82-560-1166-7.
  4. ^ Kittang, Atle (1995). "Knut Hamsun og nazismen" [Knut Hamsun and Nazism]. UiB-magasinet (Journal of the University of Bergen) (in Norwegian) (2). In Hamsun's political mythology, Germany is the young nation with a juvenile legitimacy to fulfillment and development; England represents decrepit old age.
  5. ^ "The Reality of Narrating Hunger | The Oxonian Review". 2016-02-01. Retrieved 2021-03-17.
  6. ^ Hamsun, Knut (1920). Hunger. University of Michigan. New York, A.A. Knopf. pp. 246–7.
  7. ^ Hamsun, Knut (1924). Hunger,tr. from the Norwegian of Knut Hamsun. New York. p. 244. hdl:2027/mdp.39015065658539.
  8. ^ Rem, Tore (1999-01-01). "Hunger". The Modern Language Review. 94 (1): 274–276. doi:10.2307/3736107. JSTOR 3736107.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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 (1973) [1929]. Livets Cirkel [The Circle of Life: Contributions toward an analysis of Knut Hamsun's work] (in Norwegian). Oslo, Norway: J.W. Cappelens forlag. ISBN 82-09-01137-5.

External links[edit]