‘A Lecture Tour’ by Knut Hamsun: Short Story Analysis
‘A Lecture Tour’ is a hilarious story about a man of literature, likely the author Knut Hamsun himself, who is out to give a lecture on a literary figure that no one wants to hear about. The protagonist’s name is not revealed in the story. What is revealed is that he was presumptuous, a master in literature, and had unrealistic ideas about people and their tastes. The protagonist in this story comes to the town of Drammen which is located in Norway. He wants to give a lecture on a nineteenth-century Norwegian literary figure namely Alexander Kielland. The short story goes on to tell how the protagonist fails to give a lecture on literature and instead manages to make false claims about some wild animals while being drunk on brandy. The story ends with the protagonist not making a single bit of money on his ‘lecture tour’ and only manages to get some money to return to his hometown in Kristiania.
The story is humor at its best. The descriptions are wonderfully entertaining and create a great impression on the mind of the reader. The descriptions of characters, especially the character of the dandy director, is hilarious, especially in the way he tries to bargain over the ‘speech’ in this story ‘A Lecture Tour’. We can see how in the town of Drammen, the people were not inclined towards cultural and intellectual amusements. They lacked finesse but were still good at heart. This latter point is quite evident in the following:
- The lawyer Carlsen advising the protagonist not to give the lecture.
- The porter gave him good advice about which newspaper editor he should meet.
- The homely folks on the train to Drammen wanting to share their drink with the protagonist but realizing that he was busy leaves him alone.
- The patrons of the protagonist’s basement café home trying to get into a friendly conversation about him and when told off by the landlady not to disturb him, they let him be with his books and studies.
- The ticket-collector being optimistic even though he is aware that no one would ever come for the literature lecture.
The people of Drammen lack the inclination to appreciate literature. However, this doesn’t stop the protagonist. He is a determined personality who is sure that people would come for a literature lecture. He feels that he is a better speaker than the others before him. He feels he is better than the Swedish student who came to talk about peace. He feels he is even better than the anti-spiritualist who does his show with apes and wild animals. There is strong evidence that the author Knut Hamsun is the protagonist in this short story and may have had this false idea that he could gather a crowd for a literature lecture. He has drawn himself to be a difficult and stubborn person to work with, a thrifty person, and a person ready to do anything to get money as long as it has something to do with literature. He pays a price for his thriftiness by walking out of an excellent bed-and-breakfast room. He is under the mistaken impression that the place is so well kept it must be expensive. He was proved to be wrong later.
The descriptions of his adventures with the porter and the maid of that well-kept establishment are so realistic that its mundanity makes one laugh out loud. I want to draw your attention to the yellow carpetbag that he drags around with him everywhere. Other than being a scruffy thing, it was only in existence for the sole purpose of getting him into a bed-and-breakfast establishment. This is so because people believe they can trust someone because they carry a bag. Oddly, he can comprehend this part of human psychology but not other details, especially the fact that no one spends money to hear a lecture on literature. He is highly optimistic and even till the last half-hour of the lecture waits for his crowd which just doesn’t come. He lands up with only Carlsen the lawyer and the ticket collector being present in the hall. Hence, there was to be no lecture. One can see the good nature of the lawyer who felt pity for the protagonist and so thought to make it to the lecture even though it was raining heavily.
The satire and irony in this story are evident by the fact that the people of Drammen were ready to watch a nonsense show which the dandy director was showcasing rather than a lecture on literature. They were ready to hear the fake facts of a badger being called a hyena and two wolf cubs being called a sable and marten. They were ready to hear this rubbish which could only entertain them rather than edify them. This was ironic. It became more of an irony when the protagonist himself was then involved in writing the speech to introduce the beasts. He was employed by the enterprising director to write and speak a piece on the animals and his fee kept fluctuating. The protagonist agrees to do so because he was:
- A very talented speaker.
- A very talented writer.
- He was drunk on brandy.
The comedy of the story escalates towards the end when the badger is let loose and the audience thinking it was a hyena scream until it is back in its cage. This is quite a parody on life; we know something is fake yet, we like to hear it and revel in it because it allows the day to pass by. Remember, the people of Drammen were either hungry working men and street porters. They had to bother about where their next meal would come from. This is the reason why they in their free time wanted to be entertained by sensationalism, even if it was fake and even if they hear or saw it every week. They wanted to pass their time, not to be educated. But must it be so? That is the subtle question the author is trying to hint at us.
One can also see in the story ‘A Lecture Tour’ that every shred of art as it were was being exchanged for money. There is no respect at all for art here in this story. The director even attempts to buy the speech that the protagonist wrote because he does not want to continue paying the protagonist for giving the speeches. Thus, the protagonist ends up with only enough money to return to his own home.
Money and monetary matters are strong points in this story. It looks like the poor protagonist’s only concern was:
- How to save money.
- How to save money by choosing the cheapest room.
- How to save money by not tipping the porter or the maid.
- How to save money by choosing the cheapest rooms in a basement café.
- How to save money by carefully selecting a hall.
- How to save money for profit during the lecture.
- How to save enough money to go home.
- How to save money to pay the people he was indebted to.
‘Money certainly made the mare move’ in the life of the protagonist of this story ‘A Lecture Tour’.
- The porter demands his tips for carrying the protagonist’s bags.
- The maid thinking the protagonist was wealthy is more than willing to be courteous to him.
- The protagonist’s thriftiness did not save him from losing all the money he had.
There is a great class division that one can see here in this story. The common folk seems to respect people who are studious, intellectual, people reading books, people who are educated, et al. They are even admonished by others to remain quiet when such an intellectual was on the premises. Ironically these very same people though respecting the education and intelligence of the professor, don’t feel it binding enough to learn a thing or two from them in a lecture.
The Bible, biblical, as well as Jewish elements, are made fun of here in this story. It seems that only when the protagonist narrates the speech in terms of the animals of Noah’s ark, the Queen of Sheba, King Solomon, et al., does he catch the interest of the audience. The pun in the second last line of the short story where it says ‘the power of literature has to move men’s minds’ only manages to move one thing: that is the protagonist from Drammen back to his home in Kristiania.
This was the first time I read a short story by Knut Hamsun and I hope to read his book Hunger as soon as possible and post a book review of it. Knut Hamsun is certainly a very interesting author, especially when I realized that he gifted his Nobel Prize medal to Joseph Goebbels during the Second World War! All in all, ‘A Lecture Tour’ was a fascinating read.
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