Knut Hamsun’s Hunger: Study on human nature

Hunger/Sult. Dover Publicantion, 2003 Edition (1890)

Once while walking around the second floor of the New York Public Library, I landed on the bookshelf that housed A wanderer plays on muted strings, by Knut Hamsun. I was struck by the subtly of the title. Filled with clever observations, humor, discoveries, and mini intrigues, A wanderer plays on muted strings is a continuation of Under the autumn star, written 6 years later. Both books play with the theme of being the distant observer, and take on the approach of travel stories. The protagonist Knut Penderson, goes from one Norway town to another searching for small jobs, meeting old friends, and making new ones. Both works observe and explore the oddities of human relationships. Knut’s travels from the urban city to the small towns of Norway, more than anything looking for tranquility and happiness in the slowness of days. When reading them, I pictured an older narrator, who settled himself comfortably in the continuation of his search.

Much of the great writing in A wanderer plays on muted strings surfaces when Knut takes lonely walks with nature as his only companion. Here he describes even the most peculiar thought.

I find a strange sense of pleasure coming over me as I look at this cozy homestead in the woods. There is a faint soughing of the wind in the forest behind; close up to the house are foliage trees, and the aspens rustle like silk. I walk back home. Night is deepening; all the birds are silent; the air calm and warm, in a soft bluish gloom.

This year will probably be a good one for berries. Mountain cranberries, crowberries and cloudberries. True enough, you can’t live on berries. But it’s nice to have them in the fields, looking so pleasing to the eye. And they’re refreshing to come across when you’re thirsty and hungry. Yesterday afternoon I sat and thought about this.

This led me to search for Hunger, one of Knut’s first major novels published in 1890. It portrays an unemployed youth, named Tangen who writes sporadically for a living in Christiania, Norway. The author himself was known to be poor during his youth. Much of the writing in Hunger is said to be autobiographical, so it’s likely he experienced similar trials. Unlike A wanderer plays on muted strings and Under the autumn star, the connection between man and nature in Hunger is not an apparent one, instead we delve into the character’s psychological troubles. Hunger explores human nature through Tangen’s spiral into poverty.

We meet Tangen in the beginning of his long battle with unemployment in the late 19th century. He hasn’t paid rent for his small apartment with a window to the street. It’s his most prized possession apart from his writing sheets and pencils. He only has a few items, including a blanket, his glasses and a coat, after having sold off his other possessions to a local store in order to acquire money for food. The storekeeper buying his items finally realizes how foolishly mad Tangen has become when he decides to sell old buttons. But Tangen thinks this plan is worthy of payment.

Well, now, there was nothing more to be done! To think he would not take them at any price, I muttered. They are almost new buttons; I can’t understand it. (Hamsun 63)

Tangen’s one room has a bed, a chair and a window; he makes no mention of a kitchen. Without a steady income he cuts down on food, leaving him weak for days until he gets paid for his articles. The landlord lady eyes him for the rent money, but he usually avoids her sight in fear of shame. He hangs by a thin thread. He is expecting to turn over an article or get a job in one of the markets but nothing comes to fruition. He says, “No!” crying and clenching both hands; “there must be an end to this.” He’s often too prideful to realize he must accept any job that brings him money even if it doesn’t align with his principles. When friends approach him, he tries to avoid their prying words, insisting that he is doing fine. He doesn’t want to show signs of needing money or shelter. It is when he is in the pangs of desperation, that he’ll use false pretenses to ask for help.

Tangen spends his days mostly sitting on benches, observing people, or writing down lines for an article in the local newspaper. Since his stomach is empty he is unable to finish longer pieces, and so buries himself in doubtful premonitions. He talks to strangers, observes them, remarking on their appearance or their behavior towards him. A conversation for him is a universe. These interactions show the strength of social conditioning, and how few if any, are willing to get out of their comfort zone. Tangen’s experience makes it evident the preference for conventions. During his encounters, some new agitation, panic or some obsessive curiosity pester him. Yet his conflicts remain psychological, buried deep in his conscience. 

During one night a cop takes him to a boarding house for the homeless. He makes a grand story about being out all night with friends and forgetting his apartment keys. He tells the officer he is a journalist for the local newspaper, and they treat him as he appears to be, a gentleman; his clothes still look new and his appearance is not yet haggard. He becomes paranoid, thinking the officers will discover the truth. In the morning they offer everyone a ticket for breakfast, except him; he does not demand one, despite not having eaten for three days. The truth will be revealed, so he thinks. He takes leave with quickness.

Eventually his appearance begins to dull: his clothes are dirty and sweaty, and his hair begins falling in clumps. Winter has set in, taking a toll on his health. Upon entering a store, he sees a friend who offers to help him, despite Tangen’s hesitation, the friend insists. Truly he cannot hide his troubles after weeks of being without a proper meal, a shower or a change of clothes. In this way Tangen receives money in little bits from acquaintances, but not enough for an apartment or constant food. The shame and pride consume him as he notices others staring at him constantly. In an effort to lift his spirits, Tangen tries to find a place to write his articles and his upcoming novel. All he wants is a descent place, some food, a light and silence. Yet he has no alternative, but to write in public parks or in a crowded living room with kids running around.

The last crisis had dealt rather roughly with me. My hair fell out in masses, and I was much troubled with headaches, particularly in the morning, and my nervousness died a hard death. I sat and wrote during the day with my hands bound up in rags, simply because I could not endure the touch of my own breath upon them. If Jens Olaj banged the stable door underneath me, or if a dog came into the yard and commenced to bark, it thrilled through my very marrow like icy stabs piercing me from every side. I was pretty well played out. (Hamsun 65)


Le Modele Rouge, Rene Magriette
The painting Le Modele Rouge, by Rene Magriette brings to mind the decapitated feeling of poverty or the old saying walk a mile in my shoes.

Tangen, who has been driven to irrational decisions has at times lost clarity, walked in the street with a cloudy head and landed on some small cement corner to pass out. Despite not expecting kindness, only repulsion, he receives help even from the man he admires most, the Commodore, a newspaperman. Despite his many faults, he never succumbs to depression, crime or a permanent black hole, even at night when left in the wet frozen weather. All he is—is a mind, a pencil and a paper. Despite his troubles Tangen seeks beauty and laughter in the randomness of life, turning his thoughts from depressive to gleeful.

On the topic of Tangen, the author once said, “I will make my character laugh where sensible people think he ought to cry,” Hamsun exclaimed. “And why? Because my hero is no character, no ‘type,’ … but a complex, modern being.”

Hamsun carved out a character that was without a filter, writing Tangen’s voice as a stream of consciousness, staying close to the reader, instead of hiding the character behind a decorative veil. We can see his mishaps, excuses, and comedic denials. We understand at once that he is human. Some may identify with the Tangen when he doubts his religious faith, as he goes from a believer to one angered by a God who ignores him.  To question God in this manner, was relevant at the time; a rebellious undertaking.

I tell you, you Heaven’s Holy Baal, you don’t exist; but that, if you did, I would curse you so that your Heaven would quiver with the fire of hell! I tell you, I have offered you my service, and you repulsed me; and I turn my back on you for all eternity, because you did not know your time of visitation! I tell you that I am about to die, and yet I mock you!

Tangen’s faith goes up and down like a seesaw, making it evident that his faith is not a profound one. He also uses religious praises almost to a comedic level— and the next minute, he is awfully mad at God. It is perhaps a satirical commentary on the tomfoolery of religious ardor at the time. Considering his age it is likely he was still discovering his faith.

In A wanderer plays on muted string, we see brief mentions of God, not in bombastic fashion, but rather done humbly—possibly due to the the theme of wandering in nature. Hunger has an urban setting, with people, cops, carriages, bells, city clocks, benches and crowded parks. Just as there is turmoil in Tangen’s head, he gets no reprieve from the bustling streets. In A wanderer plays on muted string the main character is surrounded by the Norwegian woodlands, exemplifying the mystical bond between man and his environment. It is an ode to Pantheism, which the author Hansum has often been linked to. The spiritual movement of Pantheism ties mankind to the universe and nature as the beginning and the end. It respects scientific evidence and reason, but does not include the anthropomorphic worship of a being.

Hunger demonstrates the winding spiral of a healthy man. The mind, spirit and body are all connected to food sustenance.  Despite not having the main ingredients for survival, Tangen’s human spirit still flickers, allowing him a break from total depression. He is fortunate to receive help, but the same can’t be said for the homeless people we encounter on our daily commutes. Reading this makes me think about the homeless— how did they end up there? Sometimes they are ignored by the community and left for dead. It takes more than a few coins to help nowadays, but even if small, help brings hope to someone without a solid ground, whether it be with food or shelter.

In Tangen’s defense, he wasn’t a drunken fool or a lazy person. He did apply himself,  though at times his inability to face the truth of urgency debilitated him. The truth was an impending doom upon his present state. It’s hard to acknowledge the daily impossibilities of poverty for anyone. Often your circumstances make you feel guilty. His struggles show a devotion to writing that surpasses a commonplace  hobby. And even if he rarely published articles, he was always enthralled by the intellectual exercise of writing and submitting philosophical inquiries. It was the only craft left upon him that gave life, and a reason to find the means to stay alive.