The Psychology of Nihilism

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The Psychology of Nihilism
Written from the perspective of a struggling writer living in the city of Christiania near Oslo, Norway, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger is a semi-autobiographical work that reflects upon Hamsun’s own struggle as he worked to establish his literary reputation. The reader follows the protagonist as he descends ever deeper into psychological unrest as a result of poverty. Richard Wright’s The Man Who Lived Underground offers the same voyeuristic experience for the reader as they observe the life of a man on the lamb for being wrongfully accused of a crime and who takes to city sewers to seek refuge. Both pieces share the same overarching theme: the psychology of nihilism in the face of poverty. Hamsun use of stream-of-consciousness advocates the destructive aspect of nihilism, while Wright employs the same narrative technique to advocate the rejection of meaning in life.

Hunger is a monologue related by a struggling writer. The novel is largely devoid of plot and character development. Alternatively, the narrative focuses on the thoughts and actions of the first-person narrator who hopes to strike success. At the core of this novel is the idea of nihilism: total and absolute destructiveness, especially toward the world at large and including oneself. At the beginning of the novel, the protagonist starts of fairly hopeful and psychologically sound. As the reader delves deeper into the novel, the nameless protagonist’s decent into maddening hunger begins: …I breathed heavily and audibly, and sobbed, gnashing my teeth, every time I had to abandon these bits of meat which might have satisfied my hunger…Carried away by rage, I shouted and roared threats up to the sky, shrieked God’s name hoarsely and savagely, and curled my fingers like claws…I’ll tell you this, you scared Baal in the sky, you do not exist, and if you do, I’ll cure you so that your heaven will start shuddering with hellfire! (Hamsun 162) This is shortly after the narrator...
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