Social implications of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger

This classic Norwegian humanist novel still has much to teach us about easing poverty


Cole W. Chernushin
Arvada, Colo.

Through a semi-autobiographic narrative, Hunger artfully describes content that modern members of society would do well to investigate. Written in 1890 by Knut Hamsun with the original Norwegian title Sult, Hunger chronicles the life of a malnourished, impoverished, fictional writer from manic highs to delusional lows.

Aside from being an artful novel worthy of being compared to the likes of Dostoyevsky, this novel conveys in exceptional form how intersectional issues related to poverty can be. Take, for instance, the unnamed narrator’s struggle to gain employment. As a writer, the narrator shows a clear capacity to keep diligent notes. However, as a starving writer, the narrator makes simple errors when applying to various jobs, such as submitting the wrong date.

The cold streets of Oslo have never been a comfortable place for those without food to keep the internal fires burning. Each page shows the dire struggle for the narrator to stay a step ahead of basic necessities. The balancing act that the narrator often fails to accomplish forces him to make tough choices, such as selling most of the clothes off his back. Having little to formally present himself, finding work becomes all the more challenging, and he falls into days of starvation.

Hunger and unemployment aside, the narrator also demonstrates the perceived humiliation that individuals experiencing poverty must combat on a daily basis. To be poor and to look poor take double the toll. The narrator finds himself an outcast from society in many regards. Friends avoid looking him in the eye or being seen associating with the destitute narrator; a chance encounter ends horribly once the narrator reveals his poverty; people on the street hurriedly walk away. Indeed, the narrator, predictably and quite humanly, must also mitigate his hunger for human contact that manifests itself in rather obtrusive outbursts directed at strangers. For those who have not experienced dire poverty, it can be rather easy to slip into a state of mind where people in need of help begin to blend into the background. In a country where one out of every five children experience malnutrition, this issue simply cannot fade away, for that being the case, we all risk the humanity of our society also fading.

Hamsun, in this novel, captures a Norwegian spirit that would do an American audience a lot of good to reflect upon. For through all of the struggle and strife faced by the narrator, there lies a safety net. In moments of absolute despair, the narrator finds himself aided by the state in the form of the police force that seek not to punish his homelessness, but to keep him warm and fed.

Recall that this novel was originally published in 1890. In the past 126 years, we have seen a massive increase in agricultural and material production. Society can clearly do more for people like this poor narrator, who require more than inconsistent handouts. As a humanist work, Hunger clearly leaves one to wonder how we can move forward as a national community and support those experiencing poverty. This, most importantly of all, is a legacy of Norwegian culture that we Americans must learn to welcome and embrace.

This article originally appeared in the July 29, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.