The novel, written in the first person, is partly autobiographical; it depicts events from 1886 in Christiania (now Oslo), where Hamsun was on the verge of starvation.
The narrator lives in a miserable little room in the attic, where he is constantly plagued by hunger pangs. A beginner writer tries to earn giving articles, notes, satires in newspapers, but it is not enough for life, so he falls into a complete destitution. He wistfully reflects on how slowly and steadily he is rolling downhill. It seems the only way out is to find a steady income, and he starts to study advertisements in newspapers on the hiring. But in order to take the place of a cashier a deposit is required, and he has no money, in the firefighters he is not taken, because he wears glasses.
The narrator is experiencing weakness, dizziness, nausea. Chronic hunger causes excitement. He is wound up, neurotic and irritable. During the day, he likes to spend time in the park - there he ponders over themes for future work, making sketches. Strange thoughts, words, images, fantastic pictures are sweeping through his mind.
He has already pawned everything he had - household domestic trifles, all the books. When the auctions are held, he entertains himself by watching, in whose hands move his things, and if they get a good master, he feels satisfied.
Heavy prolonged hunger causes the improper behavior of the narrator - he often goes against established worldly standards. Following a sudden impulse, he gives his jacket to the moneylender and hands money to a beggar crippled, and lonely starving continues to ferment among the masses of well-fed people, and is acutely aware of the complete disregard of others.
He is overfilled with sketches of new articles, but the editors reject his works: he chooses too abstract themes, newspaper readers are not hunters to abstruse reasoning.
Hunger torments him constantly, and to soothe it, he chews a sliver or sucks stone and even blackened orange peel. His eye catches the announcement that there is a place of an accountant, but it is a failure again.
Reflecting on his misadventures, the narrator asks, why has God chosen him for his exercise, and came to a disappointing conclusion: apparently just decided to ruin him.
He has nothing to pay for an apartment, and is in danger to be on the street. It is necessary to write an article, this time it certainly will be taken, and with received money it will be possible to survive. But, as if on purpose, the work does not move, the right words do not come. But finally he found a successful phrase, and the next morning fifteen pages are ready. He experiences a kind of euphoria. The narrator expects the review, and it is accepted. He gets 10 krones.
But this fee is not enough for making two ends meet. Landlady recommends him to find another place to live, and he is forced to spend the night in the forest. An idea to give up the blanket that had once been borrowed from a friend comes to his mind, but it is his the only remaining asset, so he refuses. As the narrator is forced to carry a blanket with him, he comes into the store and asks the clerk to pack it in paper. Faced with his friend on the street he assures that has got a good place and bought the fabric for a suit. Such meetings make him realize how pathetic his appearance is, he suffers the indignity of his position.
Hunger becomes a constant companion, physical suffering cause frustration, anger, resentment. Unsuccessful are all the attempts to get at least some money. Almost on the verge of a hungry fainting the narrator thinks of going into a bakery and ask for bread. Then he begs the butcher of a bone, ostensibly for his dog, and turning in the back alley, tries to gnaw it. Once he has to look for an overnight stay at the police station under the false pretext that he stayed too long in the coffee shop and have lost the keys to the apartment. The narrator spends in the private chamber a terrible night, realizing that he is close to madness. In the morning he angrily watches the detainees distributing food stamps, he himself, unfortunately, does not receive one, because the day before, not wanting to be seen as a homeless tramp, he introduced himself to the policeman as a journalist.
The narrator thinks about moral issues: at that point, without any compunction, he would pick up the coin, dropped by a poor widow, even if it was her last coin.
On the street he is faced with a newspaper editor, who out of sympathy gives him a certain amount of money in the account of the future fee. This helps the narrator to regain roof over his head. Hesitantly, he comes into the shop for a candle, which he intends to ask for a loan. He is working hard day and night long. The clerk by mistake gives him with a candle some change. Not believing the unexpected luck, the poor writer in a hurry leaves the store, but the shame hurts him, and he gives money to an old woman selling pies. After a while he decides to repent clerk of the crime, but he is not met with understanding, and is taken for a madman. One day staggering from hunger, he finds this old woman, hoping to eat at least a little - he once did for her good and can count on responsiveness - but the old woman meets him with swearing and drives him away.
Once the narrator meets in the park two women and follows them behaving impudently and rather silly. He calls one of the women Ylajali – a meaningless, musical-sounding name, transmitting woman’s charm and mystique. But their relationship was not destined to evolve, they cannot overcome disunity.
Again, miserable, hungry existence, mood swings, the usual isolation pursue the narrator. Having decided that he needs to change his life radically the narrator enters as a sailor on the ship.