Hunger and Self-Fashioning in Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Knut Hamsun’s Sult

Daniel Rees

This paper will investigate the correlation of hunger with the idea of self-fashioning in Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945) and in Knut Hamsun’s Sult (1890). Out of all the literary texts which adopt hunger as a motif, I have chosen these for the particular manner in which they portray the impact and effects of hunger on their respective narrators, and how it is used thematically to denote both appetite and desire, and the manner in which it is interwoven into their thoughts and actions. Though they are works of literary fiction, both texts integrate autobiographical elements, albeit to varying degrees: Wright retraces his personal struggle to realize his life-long ambition to become a writer, beginning with an account of his childhood and youth in the Jim Crow South, to his later life as a left-wing intellectual in Chicago. Hamsun, on the other hand, never intended his first novel to be read as an autobiography, though his first-person narrative reflected the poverty and hunger which affected his life during the 1880s, which can be summed up in the opening line: “It was in those days when I wandered about hungry in the streets of Kristiania, that strange city which no one leaves before it has set its mark upon him…”(4)

The more we look at the uses and interpretations that authors have given the word “hunger,” the more complex its meaning becomes. Out of the multiple uses of the notion of hunger in literature that are outlined in Ellmann’s seminal study The Hunger Artists (1993), this paper will take into account the experiential aspect of hunger, and will examine the strong correlation with the idea of self-fashioning. In general terms, hunger often implies an emptiness or lack that needs to be filled which can be positively or negatively connoted, equated with a search for physical satisfaction as well as for intellectual fulfilment. Beyond the purely physical drive of the appetite, the concept of hunger attains connotations of desire and longing, and becomes entangled with ideas of personality development and a sense of seeking knowledge of the full range of human experience. Self-fashioning takes the form of self-exploration, as the reader gains insight into the narrator’s perceptions through the distorting and unbalancing effect that his living conditions—and hunger in particular—produce.  

Even at the most advanced levels of society, the consumption of food and digestion are among the remnants of our instinctive, animal nature. The most fundamental desires are attached to bodily needs, such as sexuality, sleep, and so on, though hunger arguably remains our strongest impulse, and our first desire for mother’s milk forms the pattern for our desires in the future, regardless of how complex or disparate they may become. Such basic instincts can no doubt become a creative or destructive force depending on the individual in question, and may cause us to examine the validity and purpose of attributing them to their attitudes and endeavors.

Through the many nuances that layer the subject with meaning, hunger is bound up with the desires and actions of individuals who willfully disdain the mode of living available to them. Therefore, while hunger may become an impulse for a given course of action, a kind of stimulus which moves a person to think or act in a certain way, self-fashioning requires a deliberate decision and a set goal on the part of the individual. Self-fashioning implies an intention to become something, and it thereby challenges the notion that our desires and actions are a result of a postulated innate, biological nature, or that they follow a divine or cosmic plan which we can never fully comprehend.

The dualistic approach to hunger and the respective narrators’ experiences of poverty and starvation is a motif that unites both Black Boy and Sult; however, in their differing accounts of suffering and striving they approach the subject of self-fashioning in a contrasting manner. Despite the autobiographical features of the two texts, I maintain that both narrators remain constructed figures set within a clearly defined time and place. They are further subject to challenging circumstances such as poverty, violence, and discrimination, which serve to reveal their particular viewpoints and individuality. Hunger forms an element of continuity between the narrated self presented by the figure of Richard Wright and Hamsun’s nameless narrator, and thoroughly influences the narrators’ experiences and attitudes towards the world as depicted in the respective novels.

The idea of self-fashioning, coupled with the constructivist approach to the figure of the narrator, suggests an existentialist reading of the text: According to Jean-Paul Sartre in Existentialism and Human Emotions, we must accept our responsibility for the creation of our own self-identity, and we are totally free to become what we desire. The very term “self-fashioning” appears to confirm his view that “the future of man is man,” or that “[m]an is nothing else but his plan; he exists only to the extent that he fulfills himself” (32). But how does one gain any definite, concrete knowledge of what “identity” really is? What Sartre calls “subjectivism” is the idea that “on the one hand, an individual chooses and makes himself; and, on the other, that it is impossible for man to transcend human subjectivity” (16). This would imply that identity is something internal (as we all possess a certain degree of self-knowledge) as well as something external to us, because we measure and define ourselves through our contact with other people and society as a whole. As a consequence we are constantly faced with our own limitations and weaknesses, which we try to hide or overcome as the case may be. The idea put forward by Sartre is that by choosing and fashioning oneself, the individual assumes total responsibility for his actions insofar as he would wish the rest of humanity to behave as he does. Hence there is nothing “innate” in human nature, as all of our actions result from choices and decisions made of our own free will.  

Through the authorial voices and personas of Wright’s and Hamsun’s narrators, hunger and the creation of identity are counter-balanced in a play of mutual cause and effect, framed and influenced by each narrator’s interaction with the world around him. In the two texts it quickly becomes clear that hunger is both directly bound up with the conditions of their existence, and that it informs and influences their very perceptions, impressions, and behavior.

In Black Boy, for example, hunger frequently intrudes upon the narrative and colors the events described when Richard Wright recounts his poverty and misfortune as a young boy. Yet he also uses the physical hardship of his formative years to illustrate the eventual triumph of his efforts at self-making:

There were hours when hunger would make me weak, would make me sway while walking, would make my heart give a sudden wild spurt of beating that would shake my body and make me breathless; but happiness of being free would lift me beyond hunger, would enable me to discipline the sensations of my body to the extent that I could temporarily forget. (127)

Originating as a “physical” sensation, hunger seems to encroach upon the thoughts of the narrator. His awareness of hunger gradually emerges out of the flow of the narrative and becomes manifest in the events which he subsequently describes. As a result, hunger exists within the external “reality” of the novel as well as within the internal, subjective “thoughts” of the narrator-protagonist. Through the use of a first-person narrative perspective, the line between thought and action becomes blurred, as thoughts and emotions become influenced by his reactions to the situations in which he finds himself. The rhythms of the body form a bridge between thought and action; for both Wright’s and Hamsun’s narrators, hunger—though also pain, pleasure, and the desire to write—becomes a point of departure from the immediate conditions of the present to their suffering in the past or the desired circumstances of the future. Their bouts of starvation are superseded by brief moments of respite, thus creating a dialectic that is maintained throughout the course of the action.

Unlike the narrative figure of Richard Wright, to whom hunger is both a secret burden and a source of creative energy, in Hamsun’s text the reader gains insight into the narrator’s perceptions through the distorting and destructive effect that hunger induces. In his unbalanced and delusional state, he reveals the discrepancy between his brash self-image and the gradual deterioration of his body:

I must be just incredibly thin. My eyes were sinking deep into my skull […] God help us, what a face, eh? Here I was, with a head on my shoulders without its equal in the whole country, and with a pair of fists, by golly, that could grind the town porter to fine dust, and yet I was turning into a freak from hunger, right here in the city of Kristiana! (87)

His weakness only intensifies his unbalanced state of mind, so that everything, even writing, becomes a struggle.

It is questionable (and even perhaps beside the point) whether in fact we are able to piece together who Hamsun’s nameless narrator really is. Though the action is set in Kristiana (Oslo) in 1890, the protagonist exists without any form of biography: references to family, birthplace, or nationality are all omitted from the text, and the importance of these facts seems to diminish as the novel progresses. The narrator appears solely as a consciousness through which events are related; he is defined by his thoughts and actions, which are in turn motivated by nothing but whim. The narrative is made up of a series of eccentric episodes, and it is held together by two stable traits only: a sense of emptiness or lack signified by hunger and the artistic impulse signified by his need to write (Kittang, 1985, 296). Paul Auster observes that “the novel faithfully records the vagaries of the narrator’s mind, following each thought from its mysterious inception through all its meanderings, until it dissipates and the next thought begins. What happens is allowed to happen” (10). The sequential and impulsive qualities of the narrator’s thoughts are reflected by the episodic structure of the narrative, as Hamsun chose to abandon a linear plot in favor of seemingly unrelated descriptions of the narrator’s frantic battles with hunger, and his anguished efforts to produce writing that would lessen his financial troubles. The lack of any stable social identity suggested by the narrator’s namelessness also indicates a deeper anxiety or anguish which underlies the narrative monologue, as it alludes to the fear that “without identity, the reality of the world vanishes” (Auster 15). Driven by hunger and despair, the narrator finally descends into crisis, a predicament that signals his surrender and prompts his departure from the city.

Towards the end of the novel, as the narrator’s starvation becomes acute he angrily turns in growing despair against his perceived tormentors—against society, from which he feels an outcast, and against God, whom he feels has singled him out for suffering. He even rejects what he perceives as the false “reality” created by language itself. Verging on total collapse, the narrator defies the very foundations upon which he believes society is based: faith, truth, and morality.

I had no intention of collapsing, I would die on my feet. A cart rolled slowly by. I see there are potatoes in the cart, but out of rage, from sheer obstinacy, I take it into my head to say they weren’t potatoes at all, they were cabbages, and I swore horribly that they were cabbages. […] Drunk with this unprecedented sin, I raised three fingers and swore with quivering lips in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost that they were cabbages. (188)

Nothing exists outside the narrator’s subjectivity, and though he often descends into states of considerable anguish and distress, he exults in his ability to challenge accepted “truths” and conventional habits of thinking. Though frequently humbled and humiliated by his poverty, the narrator does not seek redemption or recognition from the people he meets. His lies and fabrications emphasize his refusal to be judged under the normal conditions that define a person’s identity and social status:

I had passed over into the sheer madness of hunger; I was empty and without pain and my thoughts were running riot. […] I amused myself by acting the cabinet minister, calling myself Von Tangen and affecting a bureaucratic style. […] I told barefaced lies without blinking, lied with sincerity. (65-69)

Temporarily homeless, he finds himself locked in a police cell, where his intense hunger and anxiety get the better of him. Alone in the darkness, the narrator is set adrift with no stable point of reference. It is only through his spontaneous creation of a meaningless word, “Kuboa,” that he regains some semblance of composure. This apparently trivial act implies that the starving narrator’s last remedy to the emptiness of both mind and body is his ability to fashion and create, an ability born from the need to establish some kind of order out of the chaos of random thoughts and sensations. 

The narrator defines himself in the manner of his own choosing, and whether other figures in the narrative choose to believe him or not is irrelevant. He shows no desire to benefit from his words or actions; quite the contrary, his pride and vanity make him loathe to accept any form of charity. He is, however, not devoid of guilt—interspersed among his lies are moments of genuine self-criticism. He is often at pains to at least appear respectable, although he remains trapped in the downward spiral his pride and hunger have set in motion. He seems, if anything, caught in a conflict between accepting the man he is becoming, and trying to resist the strange states into which he descends:

My mind was suffering a complete transformation, a tissue in my brain had snapped. […] Here I was walking round so hungry that my intestines were squirming inside me like snakes, and I had no guarantee that there would be something in the way of food later in the day either. And as time went on I was getting more and more hollowed out, spiritually and physically, and I stooped to less and less honourable actions every day. I lied without blushing to get my way, cheated poor people out of their rent…Rotten patches were beginning to appear in my inner being, black spongy growths that were spreading more and more. And God sat up in his heaven keeping a watchful eye on me, making sure that my destruction took place according to all the rules of the game, slowly and steadily, with no letup. (42-45)

His hunger and poverty and its social significance place him at odds with his fellows—his physical and material circumstances become a metaphor for the intellectual and spiritual isolation he feels. Though the reader is never inclined to pity the narrator, he is not a pariah or villain in the vein of Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky—he lives a degenerate and irreconcilable lifestyle for freedom’s sake alone. Hunger shackles the narrator to the immediate demands of his body while simultaneously providing a means by which to live and be as he chooses. In spite of his eccentricities, he remains irreprehensible in the eyes of society.

There is one fundamental element regarding the concept of self-fashioning which separates the narrator of Sult from that of Richard Wright’s novel Black Boy.While not surprisingly hunger is often equated with poverty, suffering, and even madness in Hamsun’s text, in Wright’s novel it also becomes synonymous with racial conflict. As he describes the hardships of his day-to-day existence, hunger becomes associated with the deep psychological scars inflicted by the racial bias of the Jim Crow South.

The narrator’s experiences are shaped by the violence and injustice that defines the relationship between blacks and whites, as having to earn a living means navigating the precarious color line, and playing by the rules that govern the racial divide. Wright makes it clear that his very life depends on his ability to control and repress his true thoughts and feelings—he must don the mask of obedience. Speaking in retrospect, he perceives that “I had begun coping with the white world too late. I could not make subservience an automatic part of my behaviour. I had to feel and think out each tiny item of racial experience in light of the whole race problem, and to each item I brought the whole of my life” (196).

As he is forced to adopt the crippling role of the socially inferior, it becomes clear that in order to survive physically, he must starve intellectually as a consequence. He feels that society’s intangible restrictions are reflected in the poor standards of education, which offer him little hope for future success. He also perceives the more severe consequences of being denied the equality and freedom that he needs to grow as an individual and to experience the full range of human experience and emotions. Both hunger and self-fashioning are equated with the desire to transcend the limitations imposed by his immediate environment and to change the very substance and conditions of his life: “I know now what being a negro meant. I could endure the hunger. I had learned to live with hate. But to feel that there were feelings denied me, that the very breath of life was beyond my reach, that more than anything hurt, wounded me. I had a new hunger” (250).

Hunger becomes equated with the desire to escape a life of hatred and poverty, and to live a life free of any restrictions whatsoever. The narrator believes that remaining in the South means living not as a human being, but eating, sleeping, and working as a black man in a predominantly white world. The exchange between the narrator and a Yankee shows the moment where hunger, racial politics, and the deep desire for escape are brought from the forefront of the narrator’s thoughts to the “real” world of complex human relations that shape the events described by the narrative:

“Tell me boy, are you hungry?”
I stared at him. He had spoken one word that touched the very soul of me, but I could not talk to him, could not let him know that I was starving myself to go north. I did not trust him. But my face did not change its expression.
“Oh, no, sir,” I said, managing a smile.
I was hungry and he knew it; but he was a white man and I felt that if I told him I was hungry I would have been revealing something shameful.
[…] I avoided him a“Boy, I can see the hunger in your face and eyes.”fter that. Whenever I saw him I felt in a queer way that he was my enemy, for he knew how I felt and the safety of my life in the South depended upon how well I concealed from all whites what I felt. (231-33)

From the opening line, there is a clear tension between the exposure of the deeply personal, emotionally charged topic of hunger, and the racial sympathy of the Northern white man. Though the narrator doubts whether conditions in the more liberal North are any better than what he currently faces, his yearning to leave the South surpasses any concern for his immediate safety.

One of the narrator’s strongest and most redeeming features lies in his refusal to be influenced or controlled by any form of ideology—whether it is the racial politics of the South, the harsh religious creed of his family, or later on the infighting of the Communist party in Chicago. By trusting his own instincts, he is able to distance himself from a world that he feels is shaped by tradition and conventional ways of thinking. His sense of being an outsider, of being a stranger both to the dominant white culture and to that of his own people, gives him a sense of intellectual freedom that is viewed as both dangerous and antagonistic by those around him. It is only by accepting the fact that he is alone that he is able to take the first steps in achieving his ultimate ambition, which is to become a writer; again this desire is phrased in terms of hunger:

Again and again I vowed that someday I would end this hunger of mine, this apartness, this eternal difference; and I did not suspect that I would never get intimately into their lives, that I was doomed to live with them but not of them, that I had my own strange and separate road, a road which in later years would make them wonder how I had come to tread it. (126)

After examining the thoughts and experiences of the narrators of both Sult and Black Boy, it appears that the hunger and self-fashioning described by Wright’s narrator eventually results in a positive, self-affirming position of independence, while for Hamsun’s it results in a state of complete denial which de-stabilises the very foundations upon which social identity is built. Both texts confirm the existentialist idea that man is free to choose his own path through his implementation of “will,” and suggest that a level of freedom, which may be viewed as either positive or negative, may eventually be achieved. Regardless of whether identity is a product of social circumstances or self-determination, both narrators reveal a capacity for self-assertion or self-destruction, while hunger becomes a means of challenging accepted norms of thought and behavior. As a testimony to the complexity of the term, hunger—be it physical, emotional, or spiritual—may be presented as a means of either destroying or embracing life itself.

Works Cited

Auster, Paul. The Art of Hunger. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. Print.

Ellmann, Maud. The Hunger Artists. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993. Print.

Hamsun, Knut. Hunger. (Sult) New York: Penguin Books, 1996. Print.

Kittang, Atle. “Knut Hamsun’s Sult: Psychological Deep Structures and Metapoetic Plot.”  Facets of European Modernism. Ed. Janet Garton. Norwich: U of East Anglia, 1985. 295-308. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Human Emotions. New York: Philosophical Library, 1957. Print.

Wright, Richard. Black Boy/American Hunger. New York: Harper Collins, 1944. Print.