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Johan Bojer: Den store hunger (The Great Hunger)

Our hero is Peer Troen, aka Peer Holm. Like Bojer himself, he is illegitimate. His father, a married captain, had an affair, and Peer was the result. He has been sent to live with a poor fishing family in the Lofoten Islands. We first meet him with other young men from the area when, contrary to instructions from their elders, they go out fishing and manage to land a shark.

Though a sinner, in his own eyes, Peer has ambitions to be a priest though this is not normally a position for someone from a poor family. His ambition is reinforced when his father shows up, handing out money to Peer and to his foster-parents.

Peer’s father shows up again later, now a Lieutenant-Colonel and posted to the area, with more money to disburse. Peer also learns he has an illegitimate half-sister. His dreams of being a priest are reinforced as he anticipates having access to the Lieutenant-Colonel’s riches.

But it all goes wrong. The Lieutenant-Colonel falls off a horse and is killed. Peer heads to Christiania to the person his father had told him would help in case of his death. The man, an unpleasant schoolmaster, tells him there are only 1800 crowns and will only be disbursed with his approval. Peer can forget the ea of becoming a priest. The schoolmaster suggests he should be an apprentice or even go back to fishing. He is even shooed away from his father’s funeral as, of course, the legitimate family are there.

Peer is in distress but eventually decides to become an apprentice in a smithy where he works hard and studies hard. He gets in touch with his half-sister, Louise, and she moves in with him and they become very close. She looks after him when he falls ill but, sadly he is away on an engineering job when she gets diphtheria.

He does off to technical college where he meets Ferdinand, his legitimate half-brother. They become friends, though Ferdinand has no idea that they are related. After college, Peer is off on his travels and he works in various places abroad and seemingly makes a lot of money. He returns, glad to be back home and heads back to Lofoten.
He is rich and has considerable engineering skills (he invented a new motor-pump). Things look even better when he meets Merle Uthoug. Her father is top dog in the region (he was head and shoulders above all the Ringeby folks, but what he really wanted was to be the biggest man in a place a hundred times as large). Merle hates the area and wants to leave but feels she should stay because of her mother. They buy a large old house owned by her father and start a family. However Peer is bored and when he is offered a new job he takes it. He has to invest a lot of money and he persuades his father-in-law to do the same but he stands to make a lot.

Of course it all goes wrong. He has lot of money invested in his half-brother’s company and puts a lot of money into his current project so when he falls, he falls hard.

Bojer is clearly making a point – don’t be too ambitious, don’t get above your station, know your place. However, as Peer writes to his friend I have discovered, dear friend, that this world-sorrow of ours is something a man can get over, if only he will learn to see with his own eyes and not with those of others. Bojer’s writings are concerned with the poor, the ordinary, the downtrodden and clearly he did not like his hero getting too rich, too self-satisfied, even though Peer remains essentially a decent person throughout the book.

And I knew now that what I had hungered after in my best years was neither knowledge, nor honour, nor riches; nor to be a priest or a great creator in steel; no, friend, but to build temples; not chapels for prayers or churches for wailing penitent sinners, but a temple for the human spirit in its grandeur, where we could lift up our souls in an anthem as a gift to heaven.

Bojer was nominated five times for the Nobel Prize and it was undoubtedly for books like this that show that money and wordly success are not the true path to happiness but, rather, it is a strong spirit, a belief in God and devotion to what the Germans call Kinder und Kirche – children and church, family and religion. This view may seem somewhat old-fashioned in this day and age but it is certainly one we can respect.

Publishing history

First published in 1916 by Gyldendal
First published in English in 1918 by Hodder and Stoughton
Translated by W.J. Alexander Worster and Charles Archer