Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The narrator poses as an objective, unemotional chronicler of a dying social phenomenon. He records the early years of the profession of fasting with cold detachment and with more than a modicum of irony. For example, he exaggerates and then undercuts the moral claim of the hunger artist, describing him as “this suffering martyr, which indeed he was, although in quite another sense.” When the public loses interest in fasting, the narrator seems to smile, “at any rate the pampered hunger artist suddenly found himself deserted one fine day by the amusement seekers.” The amused tone of this cosmic chronicler adds to the reader’s sense of the artist’s growing isolation. As the historian describes the hunger artist’s experience in the circus, the tension of the narrative increases.
In this section, the narrator often expresses the yearnings and frustrations of the hunger artist: “Just try to explain to anyone the art of fasting! Anyone who has no feeling for it cannot be made to understand it.” The narrator’s voice again merges with the feelings of the artist when the viewers question the accuracy of the numbers posted on the placard: “that was in its way the stupidest lie ever invented, by indifference and inborn malice.” By shifting from an objective to a subjective perspective, the narrator emphasizes the unbridgeable gulf between the longing artist and the world. The final shift in perspective and tone comes in the description of...
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The Hunger Artists
It may come as a surprise that ‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ is partially based on the real historical phenomenon of ‘‘professional fasting.’’ While most critics have failed to note this, Breon Mitchell, in his article, ‘‘Kafka and the Hunger Artists,’’ has brought to light the history of a world famous ‘‘hunger artist’’ whose coverage in local newspapers may have inspired Kafka’s story. Mitchell points out that ‘‘almost every detail’’ of Kafka’s story corresponds to ‘‘the actual profession of fasting for pay.’’ He states that, ‘‘The correspondence with reality is, in fact, so close that Kafka could not possibly have written the tale without some direct or indirect knowledge of the best-known hunger artists of his time.’’
The phenomenon of ‘‘professional fasting’’ lasted from 1880-1922, roughly the years of Kafka’s lifespan. The first professional fast was accomplished by Dr. Henry Tanner, an American who was said to have gone for forty days under medical observation without food. The most famous of his European imitators was Giovanni Succi, on whom Kafka’s story was most likely based. Giovanni ‘‘performed’’ fasts at least 30 different times, for periods of up to 30 days, in various European cities. Many imitators followed in the path of Anderson and Succi, achieving varying levels of success as professional fasters.
Although not in cages,...
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Point of view
‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ is written from a thirdperson limited perspective, meaning that the narrator is an abstract voice, not a character in the story. But the story is told mostly from the perspective, or point-of-view, of the hunger artist. Only in the final paragraph, as the hunger artist is dying, does the narrational perspective broaden out.
Imagery and Symbolism
Hunger. The most prominent symbolic motif in ‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ is hunger. This ‘‘hunger’’ motif is characterized by the hunger artist’s lifelong feelings of dissatisfaction. No matter how successful and famous he becomes, the hunger artist remains ‘‘unsatisfied’’ and ‘‘troubled in spirit.’’ Hunger symbolises both a lust for life and a spiritual yearning. The Hunger Artist’s dying admission is that, ‘‘I have to fast, I can’t help it.... I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.’’ His inability to find the food that he likes is symbolic of his inability to engage in ‘‘the joy of life’’ or find spiritual fulfillment.
The Cage. The hunger artist spends most of his life sitting in a display ‘‘cage.’’ The image of the cage strewn with straw, set finally at the entrance to the ‘‘menagerie’’ in a circus, draws a parallel between the hunger artist and the caged animals...
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Compare and Contrast
1883-1924: At the time of Kafka’s birth in 1883, the city of Prague was ruled under the Hapsburg Empire, as part of the Kingdom of Bohemia. World War I, however, brought about significant changes in Prague’s national identity. The War, which began with the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, resulted in the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire. During the first two years after the War, Prague became the capitol of the newly formed Republic of Czechoslovakia. As part of this new Republic, Prague changed from a city dominated by German language and culture to one dominated by Czech language and culture.
1990s: With the end of the Cold War, signified by the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, Prague was released from communist rule and made the capitol of the newly formed Czech Republic. As part of the Czech Republic, Prague has undergone a major transformation. There is now a free market, tourism, relaxing of censorship, and the welcoming of American enterprises, such as MacDonald’s, into the city.
1883-1924: Though not widely recognized during his lifetime, Kafka was well-respected within his small literary, intellectual circle in Prague, who were aware of his considerable talents. Kafka published his first prose pieces at the age of 25 in Hyperion, a journal edited by his close friend Max Brod. Throughout his brief life, he continued to publish in journals, as well as several small volumes of his stories. He died...
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Topics for Further Study
Kafka’s stories have been compared to his contemporary, the painter Edvard Munch (pronounced Moonk). Find a book of prints of Munch’s paintings and discuss the ways in which they portray a ‘‘Kafka-esque’’ mood. In what ways do they seem to depict a nightmarish world, similar to that in ‘‘A Hunger Artist,’’ in which similar feelings of alienation, entrapment, oppression, self-hatred, and angst are expressed? In what ways is the effect of the visual medium of painting used by Munch different from the effect of the written word used by Kafka’s in his stories?
Kafka and his writing have been strongly associated with the city of Prague. But since Kafka’s birth in 1883, Prague has gone through many political, economic, and cultural changes. The national identity of the city has gone from being a part of the Kingdom of Bohemia to the Republic of Czechoslovakia, to occupation by Russia to the Czech Republic. Write a research paper on the history of Prague in the twentieth century. What is Prague like today, in terms of political, cultural and economic conditions? What would it be like to visit Prague as a tourist?
Kafka’s painful relationship with his father has been widely discussed and analyzed. Write a psychological profile of Kafka, based on research into his biography and his published letters. Read his prose piece, ‘‘A Letter to His Father,’’ and his story, ‘‘The Judgement,’’ both of which are based on...
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What Do I Read Next?
Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories (1971) includes some of Kafka’s most notable stories, such as ‘‘Before the Law,’’ ‘‘The Judgement,’’ ‘‘The Metamorphosis,’’ and ‘‘In the Penal Colony.’’
The Trial: A New Translation, Based on the Restored Text (1998) is a recent translation and is said to be a more accurate rendition of Kafka’s original manuscript. The story is about Joseph K., who is interrogated by unidentified government officials and accused of an unnamed crime. He becomes entangled in a legal and bureaucratic maze from which there seems to be no exit.
Max Brod’s Franz Kafka, a Biography (1937) is an early biography by Kafka’s close friend and literary executor.
Letters to Friends, Family and Editors (1977) contains selections from Kafka’s extensive letter- writing.
Kafka’s Clothes: Ornament and Aestheticism in the Habsburg Fin de Siecle (1992), by Mark Anderson, discusses Kafka’s social milieu of fashionable Prague intellectuals at the turn of the Century.
Klaus Wagenback’s Franz Kafka: Pictures of a Life (1984) is a book of photographs from Kafka’s life, family, and home town of Prague.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Beck, Evelyn Torton. Kafka and the Yiddish Theater: Its Impact on His Work, University of Wisconsin Press, 1971, pp. 200-202.
Britannica Online [database online] , Chicago, Ill.: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1999- [cited 2 June 1999], available from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, Ill., s.v. ‘‘Allegory,’’ ‘‘The Art of Literature: DRAMA: Comedy: KINDS OF COMEDY IN DIVERSE HISTORICAL PERIODS: The absurd,’’ ‘‘The Art of Literature: NARRATIVE FICTION: Fable, parable and allegory,’’ ‘‘German Literature: The 20th century: MAJOR LITERARY TRENDS AND CONDITIONS,’’ and ‘‘Kafka, Franz.’’
Brod, Max. Franz Kafka: A Biography, Schocken Books, 1937.
Carter, F. W. ‘‘Kafka’s Prague,’’ in The World of Franz Kafka, edited by J. P. Stern, New York, Reinhart and Winston, 1980, pp. 31-32, 34-35.
Glatzer, Nahum N., ed. Kafka: The Complete Stories, New York, Schocken Books, 1971.
Kempf, Franz R. Everyone’s Darling: Kafka and the Critics of His Short Fiction, Camden House, Colombia, S.C., 1994, pp. 1-4.
Mairowitz, David Zane and Robert Crumb. Introducing Kafka, Cambridge, England, Totem Books, 1994, pp. 5, 17, 73, 154, 175.
Mitchell, Breon. ‘‘Kafka and the Hunger Artists,’’ in Kafka and the Contemporary Critical Performance, edited by Alan Udoff, Indiana...
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