Published in 1890 “Hunger” or “Sult” as it is called in Norway, is a semi-autobiographical novel. It tells the story of a starving young writer who is sometimes delusional. Written with a continual stream of consciousness inner monolog, “Hunger” has been translated into English several times. The book begins after the narrator has already pawned almost everything he owns. He is very prideful and often lies to people about his situation. Sometimes he even believes his own lies.
While struggling to write the perfect stories and essays he goes without food. Soon his health is failing, and his mind slips into alternate realities. He considers himself above the workforce and doesn’t want to find a job because he sees himself as a gifted writer. But, he hardly ever sells anything to the newspapers. The editors find his work to be too passionate. They want him to tone down his writing and make it more accessible to their readers. Although he sees their points, he still writes passionately.
The book is broken up into four parts. Each part begins with him starving and desperately trying to find food. The hungrier he becomes physically, the hungrier he becomes as a writer. In each part, he meets other hungry people. Such as Ylayali who is hungry for love. Each part of the book ends with him getting enough money for a few meals.
Throughout the book, he tries to maintain his moral compass. He gives away money as soon as he gets it. Admonishes people for falling below his personal guidelines, and inflicting punishments on himself when he feels he has fallen below his personal expectations. In the end, he takes a job on a ship and leaves Christiania.
Part one begins with the narrator waking up in his attic room in Christiania, Norway. He is an unemployed writer. He writes freelance articles but has had a book published. Now he is broke and willing to do any job to survive. He tried to get a job as a bill collector, but couldn’t afford the bond needed to do the job. Another time he tried to get a job in the Fire Department but was turned down because he wore glasses. Later he returned without the glasses but was recognized and turned away.
On this morning he is laying in bed waiting for the sun to rise so he can read the ads in the newspapers that are papering the walls of his room for insulation. Soon he gets out of bed and goes to the window. The author uses this time to describe the scenery of a poor side of the city. The narrator only has the clothes on his back since he has had to sell everything to survive. His rent is due, so he sneaks out to the street hoping to avoid the landlady.
As he walks along the street, he is filling himself up with the sights and sounds of the people passing him. Although he hasn’t eaten since the day before, he becomes nauseated at a butcher’s shop because of a woman with only one tooth. As he continued on his walk, a friend rushes past him. The narrator had borrowed a blanket from him, and he thinks the man might be worried he planned to borrow money. The narrator thinks that when he is in better shape financially, he will return the blanket.
After a while, the narrator notices a cripple who seems to be pacing himself to stay just in front of him. Soon he overtakes the cripple and slaps him on the shoulder. The cripple asks him if he has any cash for a glass of milk. Before giving him anything, the narrator questions him on his profession. The cripple tells him he is a “welt-binder,” but he can also make the whole shoe.
The narrator instructs him to wait while he finds something for him. He takes his coat to a pawn shop and gets a little bit of money for it. He reasons that it was a good idea because by that evening his piece on “Crimes of the Future” would be published and he would have more money. Until then he could share the money with the cripple and still have enough left over to have something to eat. When the narrator tries to give him the money, the cripple notices the man is dressed poorly and doesn’t want to take the money. The narrator knows his article will sell well and he has more “irons in the fire.” So he refuses to allow the cripple to ruin his beautiful day. He tosses the money to him and walks away.
He buys bread and cheese then heads to a bench in the public gardens where he enjoys a “well-balanced meal.” Afterward, he begins to pace back and forth ranting to himself about writing something more profound than “Crimes of the Future.” Something philosophical. That is when he realizes he left him pencil and paper in the jacket he pawned. He heads back to the pawn shop to retrieve his pencil.
Along the way, the narrator walks past two women. He brushes against the arm of one, and she blushes. This prompts him to become interested in her. He stops to allow them to pass and then follows. He decides her name is Ylayali. Then he tells her she is losing her book. He continues to tease her by walking in front of the girls then allowing them to overtake him while he walks behind her. She becomes frightened when he tells her she is losing her book again since she isn’t carrying a book. When she asks him about it, he ignores her. Her friend tells her to ignore him since he is probably drunk.
Finally, he becomes ashamed of his actions, but he still notices what house they go into. He waits outside until she goes to her window and stares back at him. Then he leaves. Now he feels uncomfortable with her stares as he walks away.
At the pawnshop, the man gave him his pencil and asked him to thoroughly check the pockets. There the narrator finds a couple of pawn tickets. He tells the pawn broker that the reason he wanted the pencil was because he wrote The “Philosophical Consciousness in three volumes” with it. Although he had said earlier that he planned to write it.
The narrator continues to walk and contemplate life. He realizes that the times when he was really hungry, his mind became too empty to work. He tries to write but his mind travels over his misfortunes, and he becomes concerned with his barber coupons that allow him to get a shave. Then he is plagued by flies and gnats.
While he is puzzling about the existence of “I” in shoes, an old man sits down beside him on the bench. The narrator becomes interested in the old man and his newspaper. He offers the old man a cigarette which luckily he declines since the narrator’s pockets are empty. He notices the old man’s eyes are weak. The old man asks him where he lives and he gives him the girl’s address. Then the two begin to lie to each other as they discuss a fictional landlord, and the electric prayer book the landlord invented. The story continues to grow until the narrator has Happolati, the fictitious landlord as the prime minister of Persia and Ylayali, his daughter as an enchanted princess with three hundred slaves. Finally, the narrator becomes agitated and angry at the old man who then leaves.
After sitting by himself for a while and dozing off, the narrator is woken by a park attendant who tells him he can’t sleep there. He continues to struggle with writer’s block as he makes his way home. Along the way, he sees the grocer is looking for a bookkeeper. When he gets home, the narrator finds a note from his landlady telling him as nicely as she can to either pay his rent or move. He applies for the job.
The next morning the writer’s block is broken, and he joyously writes twenty pages. In his joy of writing something that he is sure will make him famous, he decides the room is not good enough for a brilliant writer and packs his few belongings. He leaves a note for the landlady and leaves.
Since he is carrying his blanket, he decides to have it wrapped, so it will seem like a package. Then he takes his great work to the newspaper office and tries to impart to Scissors, who cuts news notes from other newspapers, how important the twenty pages are.
After leaving, he runs into Queeny. A man that he doesn’t like very much. When Queeny asks him if he has found a job, the narrator tells him he is a bookkeeper for the grocery store.
The narrator kills time by wandering the streets and is harassed by two young men. Then he goes back to the newspaper office to pick up some money for his great writing. The editor tells him that he hasn’t read it yet but has his address and will get to him when he does. He leaves and begins to wonder where he will spend the night. After sleeping on a bench for awhile, he remembers a painter friend and goes to his apartment. But is turned away because the man has a girl in his apartment. After more walking, he finally finds a place in the woods and lays his blanket out to sleep.
The next day he is hungry and slightly faint. He finally stops by the grocer to find that the job was given to someone else because the narrator had put the wrong date on the paper. He seems to be obsessed with 1848. He remembers a banker friend and thinks to sell him his barber coupons. But when he sees him the elegantly dressed man tells him he is broke. He forces the coupons on him anyway and rushes away in shame.
After he collapses on a bench, a policeman comes up and asks him where he lives. He sneaks back into his apartment. There he finds a letter from the editor that he will pay “10 kroner” for the pages he submitted. He is so thrilled that he yodels around the streets.
The narrator starts this out starving again. Two weeks have passed since the last payday that saved him. Now he hasn’t eaten in almost three days. He has written something and is waiting to take it to the editor. They have rejected his last few entries, but he keeps trying. For now, he is dozing on the bench in the park again. He is dreaming about Princess Ylayali’s castle and all her beautiful serving girls. It is a kind of Arabian Nights dream. He is awakened by a policeman and sent on his way.
He stumbles away complaining of his hunger and talking deliriously. When he reaches his home, he realizes he doesn’t have his keys and can’t get in. He thinks to ask a policeman to help him, but he discovers the master keys are at the detective bureau. The policeman suggests he go to the Officer on Duty and tell him he is homeless since it is too late to get the keys. They will give him a bed for the night. The narrator gives the officer a false name, Andreas Tangen, and tells him he is a reporter for the Morning Times. They believe him, so the next morning they don’t give him the voucher for a free breakfast the other homeless men receive.
Along the way to his home, the narrator picks up a wood chip to chew on and tries to think who can help him get money for food. Then he lights on the idea of one of his friends. But, first, he drops his latest manuscript off at the newspaper. Most of the rest of the day is spent trying to locate his friend. The man is a student and has moved quite often. Finally, the narrator finds out that his friend has gone home for the holidays.
More delirious and frantic, the narrator notices a woman selling cakes and becomes angry. But, he can’t get anyone else to sympathize and agree. A policeman tells him to move on, but he almost forgets to pick up his article. That is when he realizes that he needs to try the paper again since the editor wasn’t in before. The editor tries to tell him that although the work is good, he shows too much excitability. “There is too much fever all the time.” The editor agrees to read it but tells him he will be in touch in a couple of days. The narrator thinks about asking for an advance but realizes he has already done that too often already.
The narrator decides to run to punish himself. Finally, he stops and allows himself to sit for a small rest on a stoop just to be questioned by another policeman. Still starving and walking, the narrator hits on the idea of finding Pastor Levinson. But the hours on the door tell him his office is closed. When he knocks young girl answers. The pastor is out, and his wife is in bed with arthritis. The narrator leaves. Still frantic but trying to hold on to his dignity by telling lies.
Finally, he thinks about the green blanket. He gathers it and takes it to a pawn broker. The pawn broker enters his shop while still chewing his dinner. He won’t take the blanket because it is old nor will he take the narrator’s glasses. Walking again, the narrator thinks about a music seller, Cisler. But when he finally gets to the man, he won’t give him any money.
His uncle is the last person he wants to go to. The man has taken and then sold at auction everything the narrator owns. He calls his uncle his “vampire friend.” He tries to sell his uncle the buttons he cut from his coat and wants to include his glasses. The narrator has become visibly ill with starvation, but his uncle turns him away.
When he reaches the street, an old friend recognizes him. He is also on his way to see the uncle with things to sell. He sees the narrator is dying and insists he come with him, so he won’t wander off while he is inside. His friend tells him he will get at least five kroner for him so he can eat.
Part three opens a week later. The narrator has been eating more and had three or four essays in work. The editor had returned the last article he gave him, and the narrator has decided to find another paper to submit his work to. With that in mind, he takes his newly finished essays to “the Chief,” a man the narrator had admired for a while and made him want to become a writer. The Chief takes the time to read one of the articles and sees promise, but he wants him to write with an eye to their audience. The Chief offers an advance in future writing, but the narrator turns him down and leaves with a glad heart.
The narrator wants to get right to work, but he needs a candle because it is so dark. Since he is broke, the narrator takes his work outside to work under the street light. But, he finds a woman dressed in black standing by his lamppost and staring at his home. This is the third evening she was there.
His health is failing. He is losing his hair, and he has a sore that won’t heal. He sometimes vomits when he eats and feels faint when he goes a day without eating. The cold weather effects him strongly, and he often shivers all night and sleeps in his clothes. Finally, he goes to a bakery where he often buys his bread. He hopes to get a candle from a “young baker friend.” Along the way, he thinks about money and food. The narrator now realizes that he would stoop to stealing as he was vehemently against it before. Before going to the bakery to ask for a candle, the narrator retrieves the article he is working on from his room and tries to read it by the streetlight. But, he is stymied trying to come up with a good ending. He falls asleep in his bed fully clothed.
The next morning he still can’t break through his writer’s block. In a half dazed state, he muses about biting his finger and then is woken when he does. He wraps the bleeding digit with a soiled cloth and heads down to the bakery. The young clerk tries to give him his usual loaf of bread but is slightly irritated when the narrator requests a candle instead. Since the clerk is also in the middle of helping a woman, he is forced to wait. When the woman leaves, the clerk gives him a candle and makes the mistake of thinking the narrator had already paid. He gives the narrator back change to equal what the woman had paid. Instead of correcting the mistake, the narrator takes the candle and change without speaking.
In the joy of the windfall, the narrator goes into a restaurant and orders a roast beef. But, his stomach can’t handle it, and he vomits in an alley. Later he stops a passer-by to ask what a starved man can keep down and is told to drink milk. So he buys some and seems not to vomit.
When he gets back to his home, the narrator sees the woman waiting. He decides to question her. She tries to be secretive and won’t remove her veil. But, when he offers to walk her home he finds out that she is Ylayali. As they walk, she tells him that she lives with her mother. Her sister, who had been with her the day he saw them, has moved away. Before she goes inside, she kisses him.
The next day he begins to feel guilty about the money and gives it to the old lady selling cakes. Now he feels honorable again. An old friend convinces him to have a few beers, and the narrator gets drunk. Then he convinces a cab driver to take him to find a Mr. Kierulf, which is a name that came to him. After driving all over town and still unable to find the man that doesn’t exist, the narrator has the cab driver drop him off and then leaves without paying the fare.
In his agitation, the narrator goes to the bakery and blames him for letting him steal money from the store. The narrator tells the clerk that he gave the money to an old woman when the clerk asks him why he didn’t just return it. The narrator says he didn’t want to get the clerk in trouble, but his voice is so loud the owner of the bakery can probably hear him.
That night the narrator had a high fever and was quite ill. The next morning he is still ill and too broke to buy food. He wanders the streets and is hit by a bread cart. Two of his toes are crushed, and his boot is torn. He limps up to a butcher and asks for a bone for his dog. Then he tries to eat some meat that is still clinging to the bone and vomits it.
Later while walking, he comes face to face with The Chief. He is ashamed to say he doesn’t have his essay ready. The Chief gives him a ten kroner advance. The narrator is so amazed by the man’s confidence in him and his generosity that he is giddy. He gets a room and a meal.
On Tuesday the narrator is feeling better and goes to visit Ylayali. He stands outside looking at her apartment when she comes up to him. When he discovers she is home alone, he asks if they can go up to her apartment. She agrees. There they talk, and he finally tells her the truth about him. She tells him that she had seen him some time back with his friends at the theater. He was laughing. He says that it has been a long time since he laughed. After their kisses go a bit further than she felt comfortable, she asks him to leave. After a few moments of passionate words, he leaves.
It is now winter. The narrator was still staying at the Food and Lodging for Travelers. It is a much nicer establishment than he stayed at before. But, soon his money was running out. His landlady let it go for three weeks and still brought him food. He kept writing although he couldn’t get past the writer’s block. Since he hasn’t paid his bill, the landlady moves him out of his room and tells him another traveler needs it temporarily. He can sleep in the family room. But, there he can’t get any work done because they are all noisy and rude.
He begins a one-act play about a prostitute. One day while walking he sees Ylayali. She is with a man called the Duke and is wearing a red dress. Although he tips his hat at her, they do not speak, and she walks past. Back at the house, the narrator is further tormented by the uncouth occupants. The landlady starts to berate him and then finally tells him he has to go. Although she doesn’t kick him out during the night, she tells him he has to leave the next day.
The next day, the narrator leaves the house early, but soon he returns with new ideas for his play. The only place he can think of to write in peace is his old room, so he sneaks into it while the occupant is away. He becomes stuck on a sentence that he is sure will make the play an instant success. But before he can finish it, the landlady comes in and threatens to call the police if he doesn’t leave.
She follows him down the stairs yelling cruel taunts the whole way. At the door, he meets a delivery man who has an envelope for him. Inside is money, and he throws it at the landlady. Later he determines Ylayali sent the money.
The narrator walks back to the park and sees the old lady selling cakes that he gave the money to earlier. He tells her to give him some cakes because of all the money he had given her. She does. But, manages to stop him before he grabs too many. Then he goes to the pier where he sees a Russian ship. He convinces the captain to hire him. The captain says that if he doesn’t work out, he can leave in England. The narrator straightens up, removes his glasses and boards the ship. They sail out of Christiania.
The Narrator – although the name he sometimes uses is Andreas Tangen, he says that is a lie. He spends a lot of time telling lies and living in a dream world. The narrator desires to write. And although he has sold a few articles to the newspaper, he is barely surviving. The editor tells him his writing is too passionate and he needs to tone the emotions down. Write for the audience. He spends most of the book hungry. He is hungry for food as well as writing.
At the beginning of the book, he has already sold almost everything he owns to keep going. He thinks about getting jobs but is late to interviews. He is very prideful and stubborn. He often becomes frantic about belief. When working on a story, he becomes frantic. Instead of asking for help, he lies and says that he has a job. Then denies being hungry and often gives money away.
Even when his health fails he continues to write, turning his back on food at times. His hair falls out, and his body doesn’t recover from the starvation. He becomes angry at himself for his perceived failures, torturing himself as punishment. Although he lies to almost everyone he meets, making up elaborate stories, he considers himself to be a man of high moral character. When he meets Ylayali, he doesn’t think he is good enough for her.
In the end, he takes a job on a ship and sails away. While on the ship, without the burden of writing and hunger, he stands straight.
Ylayali – a young girl the narrator meets while wandering the streets. When he first sees her, she is with her sister. He teases her, and she watches him from her window. Then weeks later he finds her dressed in a black dress with her face covered by a veil, watching his house. He walks her home and days later he goes to her house where they spend time getting to know each other. The more she finds out about him, the less she wants to be with him. She becomes frightened and asks him to leave. The next time he sees her she is wearing a bright red dress and with another man. Later she sends money to him, and he pays his back rent.
Ylayali is not her name. It is the name the narrator gives her. He never asks her name. She is young. Although she seems to be inexperienced at the beginning of the book by the end of the book, she is very experienced. The narrator often has daydreams about her and casts her as a princess.
Uncle – in the first half of the book, the narrator’s uncle is a shadowy figure. He calls him his “vampire friend.” The narrator takes his belonging to his uncle who owns a pawn shop. Slowly all of the narrator’s possessions have gone into his shop and sold at auction. He is cruel and turns the narrator away when he is clearly starving to death.
Knut Hamsun Biography
Born in 1859 in Lom, Gudbrandsdalen, Norway, Knut Hamsun believed writers should write about the human mind. He wrote psychological works that included running inner monolog. Hamsun wrote plays, poetry, essays, short stories, over twenty novels, and a travelogue. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920 for Growth of the Soil.
At the age of nine Hamsun was sent to live with his uncle and apprentice in the post office. There he was often beaten and starved. This led to a life-long chronic nervous difficulties. Finally, at fifteen he escaped back to Lom, where he was born. There he took many odd jobs. He worked at a clerk, a sheriff’s assistant and taught school, to name a few.
At seventeen he began to write. He traveled extensively, including America. During World War II Hamsun supported the Nazi party. He often met with high-ranking German officials, including Hitler. He wrote the obituary for Hitler praising him. He was tried for treason and given a fine. Because of his advanced age, he was sent to a hospital instead of jail while awaiting his trial. He still maintained his belief in the Nazi party. This did not make him unpopular among the Norwegians as they worked to ignore his Nazi beliefs and praise him as a literary giant.
Many of Hamsun’s novels involved the narrator arriving at a place and insinuating himself in. Then he begins a detailed inner monolog that makes observations about the people around him. His writing style influenced such writers as Kafka, Hemingway, and Mann.
Hamsun married his first wife, Bergljot and they had one daughter. After their divorce in 1906, he married Marie Anderson, who he stayed with until his death. They had four children.
Politically Hamsun was extremely conservative. He was also extremely racist. During World War II he wrote many articles praising the Nazi party. He even sent his Nobel Peace Prize to Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda in Germany. When he is allowed to meet with Hitler, Hamsun spends the time complaining about the civilian administrator Germany sent to Norway and insisting Hitler release Norwegian prisoners. It took three days to get over his anger.
After the war, some of his books were burned by angry crowds, and he was hospitalized in a mental institution. The charges for treason were dropped because of his impaired mental faculties.
In 1978 Thorkild Hansen wrote, “The Hamsun Trial” that investigated the trial. He said that he thought Norway’s treatment of Hamsun was outrageous. Then in 1996, a movie was made about Hamsun’s life. Hamsun died in 1952 at the age of 92. His family buried his ashes in the garden of his home in Norholm.
His books include “Mysteries” in 1892, “In Wonderland,” in 1903, “Wayfarers” in 1927, and “On Overgrown Paths” in 1949. His writing spans over seventy years. Since 1916 much of his work has been used in television and movies. There have been over twenty-five movies and mini-series.