The Disturbing Elements of Knut Hamsen’s Hunger “One of the most disturbing novels in existence” writes Time Out magazine on the 1890 novel Hunger. This criticism seems extreme considering the nature of more modern texts; people now consume books full of gore and lewd sex. Despite this recent trend in fiction, Knut Hamsen’s Hunger continues to strike a cord with its readers. As Time Out’s quote suggests, this continuity is due to the book’s disturbing theme. Hunger disturbs the way people often assume a man would behave while in the depths of poverty’s grasp. The text disturbs the common concept that, if a man is desperate he will ignore his pride and decency for the opportunity to escape his situation.
The protagonist is himself achingly hungry when a man begs him to spare a bit of money to buy a meal. One would likely presume that the famished protagonist would consider his own breakfast before another’s. This however, is not the case.” ‘I haven’t eaten a thing since yesterday in Dram men, ” the man said. “‘ I don’t have an ore and I still can’t find work.’ ” (8).
After a bit of trivial dialogue, the protagonist responds to the beggar’s statement, “‘Wait here a few minuets, and I’ll see if I can’t find something for you, a little something at least.’ ” He says. (9). The protagonist goes on to pawn his own waistcoat in order to appease his comrade’s hunger. While it is true that a portion of the money brought in by the waistcoat the protagonist used to purchase his own meager food, the fact remains that the majority of the coins were given away. If taken at face value, the exchange was a simple gesture of kindness but, if one were to dig deeper the contribution if found to have been made out of pride. The protagonist was proud that a man had perceived him as a person who had the means to donate a meal.
For the character to have admitted that he was just hungry himself would have effectively dashed the pride that he so savored. Pride that to the protagonist was worth the value of a hungry man’s meal. The narrator’s stubborn pride is highlighted shortly after the previous passage. As he wanders about the early morning streets his shabby blanket in tow, the man’s mind wanders. “What would people think of me? So I walked along trying to think of someplace where it would be safe until later. It struck me suddenly that I could walk over to Semb’s and have them wrap it.” (39).
This man whom had no money nor food managed to retain pride. He still concerned himself with the superficial judgments of others. He was too proud to let his sole possession announce his great misfortune. This theme carries on as the narrator enters Semb’s to have the blanket covered. “For God’s sake be careful!” he shouts at the clerk who is wrapping. “Two delicate vases are inside.
That package has to get to Smyrna!” (40). The symbolic covering of his blanket is the first example of the narrator saving face in this passage. The second is the lie that he spews forth to the clerk to hide the reality that an empty, tattered blanket would hold. First the protagonist wraps his bedraggled blanket, and then he wraps his bedraggled pride with a lie. On a chilly night’s wander, the protagonist is for the first time in the novel is absolutely without a place in which to sleep. The debate that rushes about his head is a strong example of his pride.
“How in God’s name would I find a room tonight? Maybe there was a hole somewhere I could slip into and stay hidden in until morning? My pride would not allow me to go back to the room I had: nothing could ever force me to go back on my word.” (45). The protagonist considers a hole in the wall a more valiant and acceptable possibility than that of returning to his room one last night. This fact is made blatantly obvious by the protagonist and is not implied as the previous passages. He states simply that he will not go back on his word even facing the gloomy prospect of a long track to a dingy bed in the woods. Situations resembling the one in the previous passage multiply as the novel goes on.
More nights are sent in the woods and less often spent in a bed. In the middle of a night such as this, our protagonist finds himself face to face with a curious policeman. “‘What I would do is go to a hotel and get a room,’ suggests the policeman.’ But I can’t really go to a hotel-I haven’t got an ore. I was out tonight, at a club, you understand…
.’ We stood a little while on the steps of the jail. He thought and considered it all and looked me over. Rain poured down in the street.’ Then go to the Officer on Duty and register as homeless.’ As homeless? I had never thought of that. By Christ, that was a good idea! I thanked the policeman on the spot for his excellent thought.” (74-75).
All the protagonist would have had to explain was that he did not have a place to stay. Instead, he feels the need to inform the officer that he is not poor nor that he need a home, but that his lack of shelter is temporary. The protagonist would have lost too much if he were to reveal the truth to this unknown official. In his starving mind, he feels that he would be giving up his pride for a room.
The disturbing truth of Knut Hamsen’s Hunger is that even the most impoverished people retain their pride. In some situations, this pride is preserved through lies or thoughtless actions but is never the less preserved. In the direst of days, a person’s pride is often the only thing left to get them through. For as long as a man maintains pride he remains a man.