Britt Andersen: Hamsun and the new gender relations

In and around the 1900’s, literature became an essential discipline for exploring identity, gender and relations.

2017-04-2610:38 Marianne Gjelseth

Hamsun is often referred to as our most prominent male romantic poet. Pan, Mysteries, Victoria, and Rosa and Benoni all revolve around a man's love. In Norway, no-one had previously described the emotions of a man in love in such a sensual way. In these novels, love exists on the periphery of what's socially accepted, and often clashes with authorities and class barriers. In Pan and Mysteries, the forest is the staging for erotic encounters. Desire permeates everything, and spring and light intoxicate nature, animals and humans.

Reading Pan brings feelings of desire. But the epilogue in Pan causes reluctance. As the narrator changes from Glahn to a hunting friend the journey into the Indian jungle escorts us to a place of darkness with (self-) destruction and death.

The background is Glahn's break-up with Edvarda. Edvarda rejects Glahn, and rejection is something Hamsun's male characters are vulnerable to: "[…] once she realises she has been exposed to you, she will tell herself: Look, this man is standing there staring at me, thinking he has won a game! And with a look or a cold word she will send you fifty miles away."

The subject here is the battle of the sexes. Male dominance becomes incapacity. Lacking the kind of support that only the overestimation of a loved one can provide is catastrophic for Glahn's self-image. In his unconscious, women are threatening.

There is a psychosexual aggressiveness in texts written by male modernists from the turn of the 20th century. In reality, women were a threat to men’s privileges and their right to define and control. Pan is always written from the point of view of Glahn, never from Edvarda's. "When you arrived, I had already chastised her for a year", the doctor says to Glahn, "it started to work, she was crying from pain and anger, she became a more reasonable person". Edvarda's father, Mr. Mack, forces his daughter to marry against her will.

In the epilogue, which takes place in the Indian jungle, Glahn gets a hunting friend to kill him. This way, he punishes both his hated ego and Edvarda, who has admitted that she longs for Glahn.

Both Pan and Mysteries end in suicide. The suicide in Pan is heralded after a dance at Sirilund, where Edvarda rejects Glahn, after which he inflicts a gunshot wound on himself. This image of a wounded ego is reinforced when Glahn shoots his dog Aesop, which Edvarda had asked for. When saying goodbye, Glahn presents her with his dog's dead body. This grotesque act can be seen as the actions of a wounded and vulnerable man.

The second half of Hamsun's authorship is characterised by wounded men and a narrator with a moralising attitude to 'the new woman'. The Last Joy (1912), The Women at the Pump (1920) and Chapter the Last (1923) are all examples of novels concerned with the new gender relations. Impotent and castrated male characters signal that something is wrong with their masculinity.

In Chapter the Last, the main character is referred to as 'The Suicide'. He lives in a Sanatorium (a symbol of a 'sick time') and spends his time with Mr. Anton Moss, who suffers from a skin disease and eventually becomes 'snow-blind'. The two young (!) men, one physically injured and the other, mentally damaged, combine to form Hamsun's image of a wounded masculinity. In the shadow of the emancipation of women, men crop up who have become victims of 'the new woman', an expression that was coined at the beginning of the 20th century and was associated with women who demanded the right to an education, a profession, suffrage and eroticism on their own terms.

In a time when the middle class had fewer children, Hamsun also wrote about the great importance of 'propagation'. The women in his universe are generally persuaded away from the freedom of the city to a life as a wife and mother in the countryside. The drop in the birth rate over the period from 1880-1930 was discussed all over Europe. Sheriff Geissler in Growth of the Soil, from 1917, claims that we are made "for sheer propagation". In The women at the Pump, from 1923, the main male character is castrated, but as a result of his wife cheating on him with upper class men, he still becomes a father. Simultaneously, the men one could consider to have the highest ‘biological value’ become fathers of illegitimate children with brown eyes. The castrate, who thinks he is the father, is blue-eyed. He lives in a kind of matriarchy, in which his wife and his aging mother rule the roost. As social satire, this suggests that men have lost all power in modern life.

In the conclusion, the castrate is honoured for being part of the "lasting fabric of man". As the perceived father of many children, he has ensured the survival of the nation. Hamsun's satires on population policy form part of a dialogue with contemporary texts - in this case the women's liberation promoter Katti Anker Møller, who claimed that women should control reproduction. She was was also behind the Castbergian Children's Acts from 1915, a very radical law that gave so-called illegitimate children the right to their father's name and inheritance. Hamsun mocks this when the doctor in The Women at the Pump tracks down and accuses upper class men in public of being biological fathers, and the castrate collects money from them. Meanwhile, the doctor, who discusses subjects such as propagation and good forefathers, is married to a promoter of women's liberation. Neither of them wants children. Should she become pregnant, she would have an abortion. Katti Anker Møller promoted the de-criminalisation of abortion and emancipation of women.

However, in Hamsun's cultural criticism, 'the new woman' is persuaded back to motherhood. This is the theme of Hamsun's last novel, The Ring is Closed, from 1936. The book describes the next generation of women, who are flapper feminists. They are well-known from American cinema; with their short hair, cigarettes, cars and champagne parties they became a modern icon. However, as women became part of modern life, they were paradoxically forced back into traditional patterns. Hamsun's Wanderer trilogy describes how his wanderers are only able to live in exile because women have returned to the villages to have children. The traditional role of these women consequently becomes a guarantee for the wanderers' freedom and sense of belonging.


Britt Andersen is a Professor at the Institute for Nordic Language and Literature at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, Norway.