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Knut Hamsun’s fin de siècle novel Hunger sets the reader up for a journey with its opening sentence when Hamsun writes, “Christiania, singular city, from which no man departs without carrying away traces of his sojourn there.” (Hunger 1). Here, Hamsun puts into place the groundwork for the introspective journey of the novel’s protagonist, an unnamed narrator attempting to become a writer in the city of Christiania. As the protagonist travels through the city, the reader is given recounts of his exposure to great hunger and poverty, his attempt to find employment, and of his interactions with other characters in his city. Throughout the novel, Hamsun uses these experiences as a device to highlight the psyche of the narrator in an attempt to demonstrate the importance of art through as seen through the unconscious mind. In this paper, I will discuss the methods used by Hamsun to depict the unconscious mind through the experiences of his narrator.
Hamsun writes the protagonist as an unreliable and conflicted narrator who displays an inclination to act on impulse alone. This is seen in Part I when, on his way to meet with the Fire Brigade in hopes of securing employment, he attempts to make his trousers look new by sprinkling water on them. “Once again I raised myself from the window, went over to the washingstand, and sprinkled some water on the shiny knees of my trousers to dull them a little and make them look a trifle new” (3). This passage provides insight into the narrator’s lack of credibility; in lying about his appearance he is seen as acting impulsively and is proved unreliable. Hunger is an introspective novel that contains little dialogue, the reader is forced to rely on the narrator and by making him unreliable, Hamsun shows the narrator’s likelihood to lie and to act completely on impulse.
The narrator’s penchant to act out of impulse is seen throughout the novel and is an important element used in showing the narrator’s unconscious thoughts. This is seen when after accidently brushing the arm of a woman while walking though the city, the narrator begins to follow and tease her. “ Suddenly my thoughts, as if whimsically inspired, take a singular direction. I feel myself seized with an odd desire to make this lady afraid; to follow her, and annoy her in some way” (7). His description of his thoughts as whimsical and the word seized serve to show his quickness at acting on impulse. Hamsun uses the same interaction with the woman as a window into the narrator’s unconscious. When the woman passes him he says to her, “You are losing your book madam!” (p7), it is reveled two paragraphs later that they have come upon a bookshop and that the narrator is standing in front of it. He has unconsciously locked onto the bookstore and has used a book as his instrument of teasing.
The lack of pity felt by the reader for the narrator is a result of Hamsun’s depiction of the narrator’s unconscious. With the exception of a few isolated instances, the narrator remains in a state of starvation through the novel. By seeing this experience through the mind and thoughts of the narrator, the reader is made aware that his hunger is self-inflicted and does not feel sorry for him. In Part IV, after securing a room at an inn in Vaterland, he speaks of the kindness of his happiness in not being hungry when saying, “ I no longer used cloths round my hands when I wrote; and I could stare down the street from my widow on the second floor without getting giddy. It was much better in every way, and it was becoming a matter of astonishment to me that I had not already finished my allegory. I couldn’t understand why it was…” (108).
Here, Hamsun shows the unwillingness of the narrator to choose a lifestyle that does not afford him the ability to write. He would rather starve than have the comforts of a roof and a regular meal. It is only through the kindness of his landlady that he is able to feel healthy again but given this, he still does not possess the ability to finish his allegory. It is his lack of suffering that enables him to create, and without the starvation he is unable to find his art.
Hamsun’s use of stream of consciousness writing aides to the affect of the unconscious in the novel. One particular sequence has the narrator sitting on a bench, contemplating his body and having an experience that border on an out of body meditation:
“Getting weak!” I said, fiercely to myself and I closed my fists and said, “Getting weak.” I was furious with myself for these ridiculous sensations, which had overpowered me though I was fully conscious of them. I spoke harsh and sensible phrases, and I closed my eyes tightly to get rid of the tears. Then I began, as though I had never seen my shoes before, to study their expression, their mimelike movements, when I moved my toes, their shape, and the worn-out leather they had… (36)
Here, the narrator is shown to be having a conversation with himself. His voice of reason is warning him of his condition, he is too weak from hunger. Yet he continues on by labeling the warnings as “ridiculous sensations”. He disassociates from reality by focusing on his shoes and attaching a sort of personality to them. He refuses to shift the focus away from his need to suffer and employs a method of ignoring his weakness by attaching sensation to his shoes. This glimpse into his unconscious shows the reader his inability to waver from his goal, to suffer for his art.
The narrator’s unwillingness to live life without suffering is evident in the actions of his unconscious throughout Hamsun’s novel. When the narrator feels he has suffered enough, he leaves Christiania, a choice that he makes easily, but does not do so until he is ready. His self-inflicted starvation over, he sails off to a better place to prepare to write his book. Hamsun’s depiction of the unconscious mind is shown by the narrator’s sense of impulse and by his unwillingness as settle for anything that will take him away from his art. Through the experiences of the narrator, Hamsun gives the reader insight into the unconscious mind of the late nineteenth century starving artist.
Hamsun, Knut. Hunger. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 2003
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