Sunday, August 17, 2014

My joy overpowered me - Mr. Hunger tries to sell his buttons

Each of the four sections of Hunger escalates the narrator’s misery.  Each time he has gone without food for longer; he has a harder time finding even a scrap of money.  The structure of the chapters is repetitive, but I would guess few readers find them repetitive in practice.  The narrator’s suffering creates tension.  The fact that in each chapter his suffering gets worse is itself a source of tension.  I know, from the first sentence that the starving writer does not, in the end, starve, yet I experience something close to genuine relief when, at the end of each chapter, gets some money in his hands.

Chapter 3 violates the pattern in numerous ways, which I am ignoring.  There is a woman involved in that one, a different appetite.

In Chapter 2, the narrator has become so hungry that he decides to sell the buttons of his coat.  Or, he has become so craze with hunger that he believes he can get money for his buttons.  He has already sold everything else of value, and tried to sell everything of no value. 

The hope of selling these five buttons cheered me up instantly, and I said: “See, it’s all going to come out all right!”  My joy overpowered me, and I immediately started cutting he buttons off, one after the other.  All that time, I kept up a silent chatter with myself:

“Well, you see, a man becomes a bit pressed for money, just temporary of course….  Worn out, you say?  You mustn’t make reckless statements.  Just show me someone who wears out fewer buttons than I do. [snipping the fantasy conversation] All right, all right, go and get the police then.  I’ll wait here while you’re looking for a policeman.  And I won’t steal a thing from you…  Yes, good day! Good day!  My name is actually Tangen, I’ve been out a little too late…”  (Ch. 2, 93-4, all italics in original)

To be clear, this is one side of an imaginary conversation the narrator, whose name is not “Tangen,” is concocting while cutting buttons off his coat.  Even his fantasy ends with humiliation and even the police.

Later, more desperate, the narrator finally gives the buttons a try:

How well I knew that large basement shop, my refuge in dark evenings, my vampire friend!  One by one, all my possessions had vanished down there, the little things I had brought from home, my last book.  (110)

That, however vague, is almost the only time any mention is made of the character’s past.  No family, no education, no hometown – this all remains a blank.

“Well, I have something here, and I wanted to ask you if you had any use for – something that was really in the way at home, you understand, no room for them, some buttons.”  (110)

This is the real conversation.  The narrator is, throughout the book, an imaginative and implausible liar, lying as he does here to shield himself from humiliation. The actual pawnbroker does not call the police but does something perhaps worse.

The old pawnbroker laughed and went back to the desk without saying a word.  I stood there.  I hadn’t actually hoped for much, and yet I had thought it possible I would get something.  The laugh was a death sentence.  (111)

Yet, when I turn the page, I see that the chapter is ending and our poor hero is, by a stroke of luck and kindness, saved.

From my earlier reading, years ago, I remembered this scene with the buttons more vividly than anything else in the book.


  1. Count me now among the converted . . . _Hunger_ moves to a high spot on my TBR list. I shall hold off reading it until I am insulated against my own "hunger" and pressures. Although, perhaps the message of redemption and salvation (if I am reading your correctly) would be just the tonic for this stressed soul.

  2. Well, redemption and salvation from starvation! But the conflict between the need to fill the stomach and higher matters is certainly what the novel is about, even if most of the text is about the stomach.

  3. The moment when he leaves the pawn shop and meets an old friend who asks what he's doing there, and the narrator is too humiliated to say anything but can only open his hand to show his pathetic clutch of buttons, is one of my favorite in the book. Maybe the most desperate and forlorn scene in a book full of such scenes.

  4. Yes, yes! I was not sure where to stop. Such a good scene.