Literary Representations of Hunger in Early and Late Modernity

Iben Konradi Brodersen

The paper will explore the theme of hunger in modern literature – a lean topic within the paradoxically bulgy genre of the modern novel. I will compare literary material from the early days of industrial capitalism with representations of hunger in the late modern period within consumer welfare societies. I analyse four works of fiction. Two canonical pieces: Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1837-8) and Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (1890). And two contemporary: Sofi Oksanen’s Stalin’s Cows (2003) and Hanne Ørstavik’s Hyenene (The Hyenas, 2011).

My paper is motivated significantly by the fact that we have a tendency to use hunger as metaphorical vehicle for other states of longing or lack. For example we might talk of hunger for knowledge, sexual or spiritual fulfillment. I want to return to the experience of hunger in and for it self to ask what this condition can tell us about the loneliness of the body in the social arena and the intimate links between bodily vulnerability and subjectivity.

The concerns of the paper can be summed up in three points:
1 – the experience of hunger; its fundamental unsharability, at the same time its performativity;
2 – the political and social existence of hunger and its persistence in states of plenty;
3 – how 1) and 2) are conveyed in literature,

Combining phenomenology with historical study, I argue that hunger becomes conspicuous within the modern period along with an altered attitude towards poverty as a social problem. Being no longer perceived as a natural or unalterable state of society, hunger is questioned, examined, negotiated and becomes an object of shame and pity as well as an object of fascination.

Literary representations spurred by this intensified interest in hunger seem to forge a link between experiences of hunger and modern subjectivity. This, I suggest, is important when considering the intriguing fact that hunger doesn’t seem to disappear. Not even when the promises of modernity are cashed in terms – not just of plenty – but of a relatively egalitarian state of plenty within late modern welfare societies. Because encountered in the late modern novels is the enigma of materially privileged characters clinging to or even searching for a lost hunger. No longer experienced as bodily rhythm or organic dramaturgy, hunger becomes a forced and alienated practice of self-discovery or self- control.