Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Franz Kafka’s dark parable describes the hunger artist’s ritual of self-annihilation and shows the ironic use of dissatisfaction as a stimulus for art. The narrator describes two periods of the artist’s life—that of the past, when people took a “lively interest” in spectacles of fasting, and that of recent times, when fasting has lost its popularity. Even in the early days of his career, the hunger artist feels the ingratitude of his audience, which continually questions his honesty. To demonstrate that no trickery is used, the artist sings during his fast. The watchers only consider him more clever for being able to sing while eating. No matter how much he craves respect for his achievement, the artist cannot gain his audience’s trust. More important, the hunger artist cannot even please himself, for he knows that he is indeed dishonest, not because he breaks the fast—he never does this—but because he alone knows how easy it is to fast. The fast, then, is not an act of self-fortitude and spiritual purification but rather an expression of the artist’s disdain for life.
The impresario reveals himself to be as uncaring as the public toward the hunger artist. The impresario sets a forty-day limit to the fast, not out of concern for the weakened artist but because public interest cannot be sustained beyond forty days. The impresario is concerned only with promoting the performance just as the watchers are interested only in their own...
(The entire section is 834 words.)
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This story is told primarily from the perspective of a ‘‘hunger artist,’’ who fasts for up to forty days at a time while sitting in a cage scattered with straw, which is placed on display in a public location, as a form of mass entertainment. In the opening line, the reader is informed that public interest in the ‘‘art’’ of fasting has declined in recent years.
At the height of the hunger artist’s career, and of public interest in his performances, things were different. The whole town would ‘‘take a lively interest’’ in his performances; most people made a point of looking at him at least once a day, and the children, most of all, were enthralled by him. To prove that he was not sneaking any food, local men, usually butchers, were assigned to guard the cage at night. The artist was always frustrated by those who made a point of giving him the opportunity to sneak food, which he never did because, ‘‘the honor of his profession forbade it.’’ This mistrust of the purity of his art was frustrating to the artist, who preferred those who watched him diligently throughout the night.
The sources of the hunger artist’s lifelong dissatisfaction with his performances were many. Since no one could ever really know for sure that he was not cheating, that perhaps he was secretly sneaking food, only the artist himself could fully appreciate the purity of his fasting, as a result of which he was ‘‘bound to be the sole...
(The entire section is 789 words.)