The Ghost as Psychological Disturbances: The Supernatural in Knut Hamsun’s “Damen fra Tivoli” and Arne Dybfest’s Ira
by Lisa Yamasaki
[page 103] Abstract: In the late 19th century, many Scandinavian writers focused on the psychological oppression of women through the examination of topics such as gender roles in marriage and women’s sexuality. Both Knut Hamsun and Arne Dybfest were more interested in the expression of psychological depth than in the direct social commentary of many of their peers, and both describe women’s trauma through reference to the supernatural. Hamsun’s short story “Damen fra Tivoli” (“The Lady of Tivoli”) and Dybfest’s novel Ira express the psychological tension that women endure in traumatic familial relationships and show how trauma renders them ghostlike.
Keywords: trauma, Knut Hamsun, Arne Dybfest, ghosts, motherhood, psychoanalysis
When most readers think about noted Norwegian author Knut Hamsun, they consider his first novel, Sult (Hunger, 1890), an early text employing what became hallmarks of Modernism. Norwegian author Arne Dyfest is less well-known and less prolific, and although the two were different writers, this article will consider how both subtly use the supernatural within everyday nineteenth-century setting, specifically employing ghostly manifestations to represent psychological tension and repression. Hamsun’s short story “Damen fra Tivoli” (“The Lady of Tivoli,” 1897) and Dybfest’s novel Ira (1891) demonstrate the ways that ghosts can highlight troubled psychological states through female characters who suffer from and use narratives to communicate their trauma.
Hamsun and Dybfest wrote their respective works during the late nineteenth century, at a point when a great deal of Scandinavian literature had inclined toward naturalism, [page 104] social problem narratives, and critiques of social issues, a movement known as the Modern Breakthrough and from which Hamsun and Dybfest departed. Scandinavian writers, including Norwegian writers Henrik Ibsen and Amalie Skram, used literature as a means to educate readers on topics including women’s issues and gender roles. George Brandes, a Danish theorist and critic credited with sparking the Modern Breakthrough, had advocated for the eradication of religion and superstition that he aligned with earlier nineteenth century literature in favor of literature as a medium of social critique.
Other Scandinavian writers, such as the Swede Ola Hansson, argued against Brandes’s strict avoidance of religious matters and supernatural phenomena, which he had associated with religion, progressing from the critical naturalist issues of the Modern Breakthrough in favor of the emerging literary fantastic of the fin-de-siècle. In “On Eves and Freethinkers: Criticism of Religion and the Emergence of the Literary Fantastic in Nordic Literature,” Dirk Johannsen examines this shift from the didactic to a more experimental style of literature at the end of the nineteenth century: “Identifying supernatural mysteries as psychological ‘phenomena’, writers from all factions discovered the religious traditions as a resource to the modern writer” (598), he writes of authors who used the supernatural to represent a memory misrepresented or erratic emotional states.
Hamsun’s “Damen fra Tivoli” and Dybfest’s Ira are stories about psychological struggle and the repression of emotions and participate in a tradition of realist settings housing the supernatural. For example, August Strindberg used the supernatural, in particular the ghost figure, to represent the characters’ repressed desires and unconscious; thus, ghosts are necessary to help the characters honestly examine themselves in order to reach truth (Johnsson 75-76). The ghost motif in Kronbruden (The Crown Bride, 1901) enables the main character to confront her crime and [page 105] eventually provides the impetus for her religious conversion (Johnsson 84). Decades earlier, Yvonne Leffler explains, in Aurora Ljungstedt’s Hin Ondes Hus (The House of the Devil, 1853), the “ghost” is a product of shame for the incest that brought about his existence (54). Both Strindberg and Ljungstedt use the figure of the ghost to comment on a character’s psychological difficulties.1
Hamsun and Dybfest depict female protagonists experiencing trauma in mundane, realistic settings but employ the supernatural to highlight psychological tension that renders the characters as outcasts; both characters express trauma in a way that makes them take on ghostly appearances. Hamsun’s “lady of Tivoli” repeatedly puts herself in a particular setting in order to access her traumatic story, while in Dybfest’s novel, a woman, Ira, conflates the trauma of physical abuse from her mother with her desire for a particular man. Both women tell men their stories: the woman from the Tivoli finally reveals the extent of her experience through repetitive acts of telling her story, while Ira tells her story just once, to her younger lover, while still concealing her trauma from herself. In both narratives, the characters struggle to provide an account of their experiences and fully understand their trauma.
It is in the nature of trauma itself for one to shield oneself from one’s consciousness. In “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” (1922), Sigmund Freud argues that a person’s pleasure principle tries to prevent the subject from remembering a traumatic experience; while the unconscious tries to release the memory and experience to the subject’s consciousness, the preconscious tries to conceal it from the subject. The unconscious tries to unleash the pressure of this experience by having the subject reexperience the trauma in different ways. In treatment, Freud explains the relationship between the subject’s unconscious and conscious parts of the mind:
The patient cannot recall all of what lies repressed, perhaps not even the essential part of it, and so [page 106] gains no conviction that the conclusion presented to him is correct. He is obliged rather to repeat as a current experience what is repressed, instead of, as the physician would prefer to see him do, recollecting it as a fragment of the past. (13, italics in original)
Thus, the subject’s symptoms break from conscious awareness by driving the subject to seek out similar situations and act out in similar way; the subject repeats a version of the traumatic experience because they do not remember details of the experience and have not yet processed the pain.
In the context of literary trauma studies, Michelle Balaev identifies trauma as having the power to interrupt a subject’s identity and ability to accurately give a life narrative. She explains, “fright destroys the mind’s ability to comprehend and linguistically code it” (363). Thus, trauma does not allow the affected person to recount their experience, since the trauma “fractures both language and consciousness” (Balaev 363): the subject cannot express aspects of the story, as the trauma interrupts not only memory but also their ability to find the right words to express their feelings. As Freud described repetition-compulsion as a response to trauma using language that gestures to the supernatural, describing the reaction as “pursuing fate,” “a daemonic trait in their destiny” (16), a “new and mysterious impulse” (17), Balaev also uses the language of the supernatural to describe the mind’s reaction to trauma, calling it a “strange absence yet ghostlike presence in consciousness” (363, emphasis mine). This notion of the ghostlike presence of trauma manifests in Hamsun’s and Dybfest’s psychological works.
“Damen fra Tivoli”: Release of Trauma in the Fog
Hamsun’s short story “Damen fra Tivoli” focuses on the psychological breakdown and recovery of a woman who has lost her child. The story starts with the narrator meeting a friend at the Tivoli, a large amusement park in Oslo. [page 107] Throughout the story, the narrator meets the titular woman six times under different circumstances and slowly pieces her story together. The first few times, she stares at him, and the narrator declines to interact with her due to her intensity and his own insecurity. The first time, the narrator’s friend asks if they know each other but nothing transpires, while the second time, the narrator is out with another friend, a young lieutenant, who approaches the woman and buys her flowers from a street vendor, flowers that she fearfully describes as spoiled. Shortly after, the narrator, the lieutenant, and the woman walk to Castle Park, and she confesses that she had witnessed a child’s body being buried and also mentions that people are locked up in Gaustad, a mental institution, even though they might be sane. When the lieutenant responds that no one is kept in mental institutions against their will, the woman says that the mother of the dead child was locked in it. The narrator leaves the two in the park, noting that the lieutenant has better success with women before observing the disconnect between the woman’s cultivated manner of speaking and the dark subject matter that she brought up to strangers. Even though the lieutenant stays with the woman, the narrator continues to think about the woman, noting inconsistencies in her behavior and conversation but lacking any understanding of what this discrepancy might mean.
Some time later, the woman encounters the narrator as they walk along the main street in Oslo, the Karl Johan, and she shares her name with him—a name which Hamsun does not reveal but writes is from a well-known family. She first points out the Man on a Corkscrew, a man riding a bicycle through the air, and then requests to move to the most secluded bench near the gardens; after a long period of silence between them, she asks the narrator to help her dig up the dead child to see the corpse again. The narrator agrees to help her “grave Deres Barn op igen” (“dig up your child again”;2 63, emphasis mine). The woman again asserts that she only knew the woman with the child and then gives [page 108] the details of her friend’s story: her friend met a man on a similarly secluded bench, became betrothed to him, and eventually became pregnant. The narrator suggests twice that the woman with whom he is speaking is the mother of the dead child, but, ignoring his comments, she continues with the story. When the child was born, the friend attested, she saw the child’s hand move, but despite her certainty, a prominent doctor said that the child was stillborn and would only bring her the body in a coffin. Later, abandoned by her fiancé and consumed with grief, she told the story to her friends. One day, when the woman visited her parents, a carriage came for her and took her to Gaustad. There they found nothing wrong with her—just “en høj Grad af Magtløshed, en Slappelse af Viljen” (“a high degree of powerlessness, a slackening of her will”; 64).
While the narrator initially finds the story too fantastic to be true, he is aware that the woman from the Tivoli believes it, which is what matters. He doubts that the child was alive and suggests again that the child was hers; the woman remains silent and suspicious, still unable to acknowledge the traumatic experience of losing her child. Her implicit denial prompts the narrator to offer to help her dig up the grave, either because he simply wishes to be kind and help her or because he wishes to confirm her identity as the mother of the child. Her suspicion and refusal to confirm what the narrator already knows is understandable; the last time she told someone about her trauma, she was institutionalized. Not only is the memory of her loss traumatic, there is also the trauma of her hospitalization causing the disconnect between her conscious and unconscious mind.
Later that evening, she again meets the narrator in the Tivoli gardens, but she is late and continues to deny her connection to the child. This time, when they watch the Man on the Corkscrew, the woman simultaneously expresses fear and amusement that he might fall off his bike. The narrator says that, as they watched, “hun greb mig heftig i Armen som om det var hende som stod i Fare for at falde ned; [page 109] derpaa slog hun over i Lystighed” (“she gripped my arm violently as though it was she who was in danger of falling down; then she turned into merriment”; 66). Her paradoxical response suggests that she may be ready to begin to voice her trauma: she identifies with the possibility of danger but then rejects it by laughing and imagining that instead of sustaining bodily injury, he will “blev staaende tilknæs i en Ølsejdel ned paa et af Bordene!” (“land up to his knees in someone’s beer mug!”; 66). She refuses to acknowledge danger and resorts to the comic instead. However, she keeps returning to the secluded bench—the site where she met her fiancé—suggesting that she is preparing herself to confront the truth.
As the narrator walks the woman home, she looks at the last step in a random staircase and comments that it is the size of a small coffin. The narrator expresses frustration at her remark, saying that she returns to the story only to deny her place in it later. The woman tears up and, unlike her previous denials, requests that he be patient with her, suggesting that she is getting closer to confronting her trauma. The narrator succumbs to her will and allows her to hold his hand.
Months later, on a foggy night, the narrator sees a figure who follows him and then states that the child was indeed hers. The woman in the fog is described in ghostly terms, as if she has transformed into the repressed trauma that was haunting her, and the narrator’s response is initially one of apprehension as well:
Jeg springer hurtig til den modsatte Side, over tilvenstre, for at undgaa et Sammenstød — og ser nu to Øjne stirre paa mig gennem Taagen.
Damen fra Tivoli! hvisked jeg forstenet.
Hun kom lige hen til mig med sit stive Blik, hendes Ansigt var sært fortrukket; i sin ene Haand bar hun Muffen. Hun saa paa mig et Øjeblik.
Det var mit Barn! sa hun indtrængende, vendte sig derpaa om og forsvandt i Taagen. (67-68) [page 110]
(I quickly jump to the opposite side, over to the left, to avoid a collision—and now see two eyes staring at me through the fog.
The lady from Tivoli! I whispered petrified.
She came straight to me with her stiff gaze, her face strangely favored; in her one hand she carried a muff. She looked at me for a moment.
It was my Child! she said urgently, then turned around and disappeared into the fog.)
This interaction suggests that the woman has been watching the narrator and perhaps waiting to speak. The thick fog would make it nearly impossible to identify another person, rendering them ghostlike, as the narrator’s description of “two eyes staring at me through the fog” before she disappears shows. In depicting a guilty, or at any rate traumatized, consciousness in this way, Hamsun anticipates what Freud would identify as repetition-compulsion, a motivation by the unconscious to repeat actions that align with a traumatic experience. The resolution of the woman’s repression after repeated attempts, that is, her acceptance of the truth that was haunting her, takes place under circumstances that render her ghostlike—a representation of the absence in the consciousness of trauma buried in the unconscious. Only at the end, in the fog that physically shields her, can she utter the truth.
While Dolores Buttry explores the interactions between the narrator and the woman as an illustration of art’s illusions and the gullibility of those who respond to it (238), I would argue that the narrator positions himself as an analyst whose curiosity enables him to help this woman. The narrator differs from his more charming friend, the lieutenant, and shows a naïveté in his reception of her story, seeing it as improbable as she first tells it but never doubting her belief in it and eventually coming to both believe and understand the truth in the story of her “friend.” He acts like neither the fiancé who abandoned her nor the [page 111] doctors who challenged her perceptions and denied her claims; this connection allows her to get ever closer to accessing her trauma through the repetition of elements like the secluded bench, the Man on the Corkscrew, and the reminders of the child’s death through the sight of the flowers and the child-coffin-sized step. At the story’s end, she seeks out the narrator to tell him the truth that she can now acknowledge, although in doing so, she embodies the mystical unconscious by appearing ghostlike.
Ira: Ghost in the Fog
Although his tone is one of disdain rather than one intended to elicit curiosity and sympathy, Arne Dybfest also depicts his female character as ghostlike in his 1891 novel Ira, a tale of a young man’s love affair with an older woman, the titular Ira. Though Dybfest describes Ira as having a young woman’s figure, he repeatedly describes her black eye and her other, blind eye with a bluish milky haze over it. The young man, Harry, is initially consumed with the affair, as she listens to him and initiates intimacy; Harry says that he feels that their relationship is more akin to that of a mother and son interspersed with moments of passion. When Harry meets a woman his age, Zita, he falls in love with her, leaving Ira heartbroken. Though Dybfest focuses his perspective on Harry’s feelings, he also reveals Harry’s lack of awareness about what he learns from both women and of self-awareness: his own feelings bewilder him and he is torn between his dark desire for Ira and his eagerness for Zita’s youth. It is Ira’s feelings of loss that enable Harry to feel and experience self-growth despite his inability to see it.
Ira’s narrative is one filled with trauma, but she confesses that she enjoys the trauma, suggesting that she has conflated her abusive relationship with her mother and her rape with memories of romance and desire. She tells a story of being struck by her mother during a fight while they’re traveling by steamboat and going onto the deck to [page 112] cry. She sees a fisherman with large hands and begins to fixate on his hands as an emblem of his masculinity. Ira acknowledges that she confuses the sensation of her mother’s beating with the fantasy of being touched by the fisherman, whom she realizes is loud and forceful when talking to his peers on deck but tender and sensitive with her. She explains, “Jeg havde haabet paa den raa styrke, paa muskelsvulmende armes kraft, paa en vældig magt, som kunde knuge mig sønder og sammen, men som og kunde løfte mig højt og bære mig gjennem livet” (“I had hoped for the raw strength, for the power of muscle-swelling arms, for one mighty power, which could crush me to pieces and together, but which could lift me high and carry me through life”; 28-29). She believes that he could only realize his true potential by exploring the darker side of life; she says, “han ikke kunde kjende livsens glæde, før han havde følt livsens smerte” (“he could not feel the joy of life until he had felt the pain of life”; 30). A short time later, Ira continues, describing her first sexual encounter, being raped by a helmsman, and expressing satisfaction in this encounter. Describing how he kisses her, she says, “Jeg havde ingen tanke, ingen kraft til modstand, det var som om viljesnerven pludselig var skaaren over. Et kys havde magt stjaalet mig” (“I had no thought, no power to resist, it was as if the will nerve was suddenly cut. A kiss had stolen power from me”; 41). In her telling, it becomes a night of passion, which she does not experience with the fisherman.
Ira’s forthrightness and attendant vulnerability attract Harry, who also notes that Ira—like an autumn flower previously closed up—has blossomed in the later years of her life. Describing Harry’s reaction to her story, Dybfest writes of a heavy storm outside while the lovers only see eternal sunshine in their moments together, even as Harry acknowledges a storm within him that dissipates instead of becoming fully expressed as “en underlig følelse, som ikke gav mig ro, en sjælens kvide, som martred mig i dage og nætter,” (“a strange feeling that did not give me peace, a [page 113] quiver of the soul that tormented me for days and nights”; 48). He initially feels the conflicting emotions of optimism about their relationship and insecurity about his ability to be her lover. This feeling, similar to Ira’s description of the kiss from the helmsman, permeates Harry’s consciousness and forms his concept of love: he internalizes Ira’s idea of love encompassing pleasure and pain.
Unlike Hamsun’s woman from the Tivoli, Ira tells her story to and shares her darkest emotions with Harry as a form of intimacy, not understanding that she is transferring her trauma to him. Ira’s account unfolds as a long monologue without any interruptions from Harry; in it, she does not show resistance to speaking of her mistreatment from her mother and her rape, seemingly lacking an understanding of the trauma in her relationship with her mother and its connection to her attachment to men whom she perceives as physically strong. Through her monologue, Ira shows her desire for a strong and masculine lover, conflating physical strength and emotional strength: while she desires physical strength, she needs emotional strength to help her understand her own trauma. Ira mischaracterizes Harry’s youth as strength of character, and so, she does not receive what she needs.
Dybfest uses Ira’s trauma as a factor in his characterization of Harry and as commentary on both Ira’s attraction to Harry and Harry’s attraction to Ira, as well as his need to rebuild his relationship with his mother. Later in the novel, Harry admits that he always felt estranged from his mother and commits an act of violence against her, throwing a glass at her after she berates him about his relationship with Ira. This reaction is unconscious, he says, a reaction that “kom da sædvanlig i en ubevidst sindstemning, det vil sige . . . [sine] egne tanker bevidst, men ikke [sine] handlinger” (“came in an unconscious state of mind, that is . . . conscious of [his] own thoughts but not [his] actions”; 95). Early in their courtship, Harry says that Ira became “a motherly friend” to him, and she becomes his [page 114] mistress “som naar et barn lover sin moders veninde at være hendes kjæreste” (“in the same way as when a child promises his mother’s girlfriend to be her boyfriend”; 12-13). Guri Ellen Barstad notes that Ira listens to Harry like a good therapist and mother figure and tells her story to show him what she needs in a relationship. Harry’s attraction to Ira provides perspective on his troubled relationship with his mother: Ira’s appeal relates to Harry’s inability to properly communicate with his mother.
Harry’s acknowledgement of his unconscious reaction to his mother—being cognizant of his thoughts but not his actions—illuminates his behavior toward Ira. His attraction to her lessens and he begins to hide from her after she reveals her experiences of trauma, unable to express his discomfort with her narrative. Just as he shuts down when his mother reproaches him, he is unable to end the relationship or disclose his lack of interest and instead simply ignores Ira.
Since he does not communicate to her his lack of romantic interest—similar to his inability to properly confront his mother—Ira also represses her feelings, with neither acknowledging that he has lost interest in her. Unable to perceive Harry’s true nature, Ira picks the wrong man again: like she misperceived the fisherman and tried to change him into a physically powerful man, like her rapist, she tries to change Harry’s nature by continuing to pursue him despite his waning attraction to her. In addition to this lack of clarity, she cannot see how abuse from her mother has affected her attraction toward men.
Near the end of the novel, Dybfest presents Ira as a ghost in the fog, a manifestation of neglect and regret. As Harry and Zita, his new love interest, kiss one foggy day:
Lyd som af skridt nærmer sig. Det er lette, hurtige dameskridt. Nærmere og nærmere kommer de. Det er paa den anden side af vejen. Gjennem taagen skimter jeg en kvindeskikkelse—som en dunkel skygge glider hun forbid. Med ét smiler jeg haansk. [page 115] Jeg havde kjendt hende. Gjennem nattens mørke og I den tykkeste taage vilde jeg have kjendt hende. (133-134)
(Sound as of step approaching. These are easy, fast women's steps. They are getting closer and closer. It's on the other side of the road. Through the fog I glimpse a female figure—like a dark shadow she slips past. Suddenly I smile contemptuously. I had known her. Through the darkness of the night and in the thickest fog I would have known her.)
Thus, the fog turns Ira into a ghost, one haunted by her own delusions about her trauma, yet it also reflects Harry’s inability to perceive his trauma or acknowledge that he projects his issues with his mother onto Ira.
This scene is superficially similar to the scene from “Damen fra Tivoli,” but whereas the woman from the Tivoli is able to free herself from repression as she approaches the narrator during a foggy night, having processed her trauma through repeating her story and her denials such that she can allow herself to admit the truth, the encounter in the fog in Ira functions as manifestations of both Harry’s guilty consciousness in neglecting Ira and Ira’s inability to acknowledge her own trauma. While Dybfest never engages with Ira’s repression, he hints that her inability to process her trauma, which she continues to repress, shapes her pursuit of romantic partners. Both Ira and Harry are unable to see their own psychological fractures, and both are blind to their interiority, which adversely affects their ability to understand their relationships to romance: Ira does not see that Harry lacks the mental strength he would need to continue his relationship with her, and Harry’s interest in Zita is based on his perception of how different she is from Ira. Their inability to see themselves or each other clearly is made literal by the fog that shrouds their near-encounter. [page 116]
The ghostlike presence of the woman from the Tivoli in the fog represents her lack of clarity and how her unconscious has taken over; she emerges from the fog and claims her trauma. Hamsun uses ghostlike imagery to represent the psychological fragility of a woman who has lost her child, but more importantly, he suggests that anyone can experience repression and repetition-compulsion after experiencing a similarly tragic loss. Dybfest uses fog, from which Ira never fully emerges, to represent the lack of self-awareness of his characters and their inability to understand what motivates them. While both narratives of women’s trauma end with the women portrayed as ghostlike figures, they are haunted by different forces. The woman from the Tivoli haunts the narrator as she acknowledges that what haunts her is her own past, whereas neither Ira nor Harry can acknowledge that they are haunted and controlled not by each other but by their respective unresolved traumas nor that they are being driven to repeat the events of the pasts that they have repressed. The supernatural hovers at the edge of these two texts from the fin de siècle, setting the work of Hamsun and Dybfest apart from that of their more didactic Scandinavian realist peers even as they anticipate the advances in psychology that would lead to a better understanding of trauma and recovery.
1. While Ibsen did write a play called Ghosts (1882) in English translations, his allusions to ghosts critique dogmatic allegiance to religion, traditional morality, and the marital double standards that offset a patriarch’s behavior onto his family. Its Norwegian title, Gengangere, translates more literally as “repetition,” suggesting cycles and patterns from the past rather than literal hauntings.
2. All translations from “Damen fra Tivoli” and Ira are my own. [page 117]
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Lisa Yamasaki is a scholar whose work focuses on late 19th-century Norwegian literature. She likes to examine psychoanalytic themes and depictions of the supernatural in “nyromantikk”/ Neo-Romantic authors. She has her PhD from UCLA and has taught introductory writing courses at UCLA and various institutions. Aside from working on a series of essays on late 19th century Norwegian writers, Lisa likes watching detective mysteries and visiting botanical gardens.
MLA citation (print):
Yamasaki, Lisa. "The Ghost as Psychological Disturbance: The Supernatural in Knut Hamsun’s “Damen fra Tivoli” and Arne Dybfest’s Ira." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 8, no. 1, 2022, pp. 103-117.