Martin Humpàl: Hamsun's modernism

Hamsun’s works are today often called modernist. However, this designation is somewhat problematic and is only partly correct. It is difficult to find arguments to support the claim that all Hamsun’s works are modernist. Aesthetically speaking, most of the novels he wrote in the 20th century are realist literature. There is, however, little doubt that some of his earlier works are groundbreaking modernist texts. This particularly applies to Hunger and Mysteries, and to some extent also to Pan and Victoria. In terms of both themes and narrative techniques, these texts can be compared with the novels that are most often associated with the concept of modernism in literature – works of authors such as Joyce, Woolf, Kafka and Proust.

2017-04-2611:55 Marianne Gjelseth

Several typical modernist themes can be found in the novels of Hamsun mentioned above: feelings of alienation, dividedness, existential emptiness and a yearning for an authentic way of life. In other words the author emphasises themes that primarily concern the human soul or the human mind. Hamsun was of the view that contemporary realist and naturalist novels described human beings superficially. In spite of their individualised character and their frequent psychological depth, realist and naturalist literary figures were representatives of certain human types, and one of the basic functions of these figures was to illustrate general social conditions. This was one of the ways in which literature guaranteed objectivity and closeness to reality. In contrast to this, the modernists, including the young Hamsun, thought that people as certain types within a societal context are merely an artificial construction that is used to make reality more tangible. Thus the intended objectivity in realist portrayals of human beings is only an illusion: literature cannot avoid being subjective. All humans are in fact unique individuals even though they do not always appear so in the external social environment. The area in which individuality comes most strongly to the fore is the human mind, and it was therefore to this area in particular that the modernists devoted their efforts. The young Hamsun also concentrated on subjectivity to a remarkable extent: the protagonists of his early novels are great individualists – even exceptional people (or at least they strive to become so). In addition, they often behave irrationally.

Irrationality plays a major role in Hamsun’s handling of subjectivity. The protagonists in the novels mentioned are often characterised by erratic behaviour because their inner selves are full of contradictions and because they are governed by impulses from their unconscious minds. Hamsun was one of the first European authors who assigned himself the task of showing how the unconscious can affect human life. His early novels portray in detail the complex dynamics between consciousness and subconsciousness. The figures in these works conduct themselves quite differently from ordinary people – not only because their ways of acting and thinking sometimes form part of their conscious resistance to social conventions, but also because they are driven to bizarre behaviour by the irrepressible forces of their subconscious. This unpredictability breaks down logic and rationality, and Hamsun’s early literary figures are therefore constantly shifting: they lack mental integrity and a fixed identity. This psychological changeability of Hamsun’s characters is one of the most typical features of his modernism.

The great emphasis Hamsun places on depicting the intricacies of the human mind is also expressed in the form of the texts: the novels we have mentioned contain numerous long passages that focus on the inner world of the protagonists. Hamsun makes intensive use of several different narrative techniques for this purpose – including the stream of consciousness or interior monologue. These narrative techniques are instruments that are most often associated with modernist prose. The extensive use of such techniques (particularly in Chapters 4 and 18 of Mysteries) demonstrates that Hamsun really was ahead of his time since it was not until a few decades later that more authors began to apply them to a similar extent. But Hamsun also adapts other techniques to his purpose: for example he constructs some spoken monologues in a manner that makes them appear as an interior monologue or a stream of consciousness. The reader can perceive them as such because of their length, their spontaneity, and their contradictions and confusing digressions – for example in Nagel’s speech to Minutten in the second half of Chapter 10 in Mysteries.

Hamsun’s intensive artistic exploration of how the subconscious and the conscious interact, together with the innovative techniques he used to describe the dynamic universe of the mind, make him a significant figure in the history of modernism. In terms of both themes and narrative techniques he anticipated much of the later modernist literature and influenced several authors outside the Nordic countries. The young Hamsun can therefore be regarded as a pioneering modernist, not only in Norway but also in the European arena.


Martin Humpál is an associate professor at Charles University in Prague and teaches Scandinavian literature. His writings include The Roots of Modernist Narrative: Knut Hamsun’s Novels Hunger, Mysteries, and Pan (Oslo: Solum Forlag, 1998).

English translation: Ruth Johnson