A Hunger Artist

by Franz Kafka

Start Free Trial

Provide your understanding of the central theme in "A Hunger Artist." Consider the relationship between the artist and his audience.

The central theme in "A Hunger Artist" involves the problem of artistic production. The ability of the hunger artist to fully realize his talent for fasting is limited by the attention span and intelligence of his audience, but without an audience, his artistic achievement and self sacrifice go without notice.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"A Hunger Artist" is an allegory about the artistic process. The hunger artist is famous for his ability to fast. He travels from city to city, displayed in a cage, and people come to watch him fast or to make sure that he does not secretly eat anything. He has a manager who promotes him and who decides when it is time to move on to the next city. Usually this is after forty days of fasting.

The hunger artist is committed to his "art" of fasting and frustrated by his manager's handling of him and his audience's limited attention span. He knows he can achieve even longer fasts, but there is no "market" for such extended fasts. In a way, there is a disconnect between his performances for the crowd and his actual artistic practice; it is a kind of betrayal of his principles to end his fast for the benefit of the audience when he could, in fact, fast for much longer.

It is only when the hunger artist makes a deal with the circus that he is able to fully explore his talent. As a circus side show, the hunger artist is largely forgotten, even by his circus handlers. Freed from the need to play to an audience, he is able to fast and fast, although he is unable to say for how long, since the circus people have forgotten to keep track of the days.

The irony of the hunger artist's situation is that without the limiting constraints of an audience, he is able to achieve to the utmost, but his achievement is of limited value, since no one is aware of it. This distinction, however, is of little value for the hunger artist, whose only talent is fasting; in fact, his final words are that he fasted because he could not find a food he liked, suggesting that his art was not a matter of choice but literally the only thing he could do.

Your essay about this story should discuss how the hunger artist's situation is akin to Kafka's as a writer. Kafka was a literary genius who published little during his lifetime, so in a sense, all of his writing was without an audience. It's possible this story is both a celebration of personal expression as the ultimate artistic practice and a kind of recognition of the necessity of audiences, even if they are incapable of fully appreciating artistic achievement.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The hunger artist is an individual, a very unique individual at that. Even among the artistic community, he stands out from the crowd. Virtually no one else is doing what he does, fasting in a cage in front of an audience. It's clear that the hunger artist has a high regard for what he's doing; this is not some kind of gimmick, this is real art:

Apart from the changing groups of spectators there were also constant observers chosen by the public—strangely enough they were usually butchers—who, always three at a time, were given the task of observing the hunger artist day and night, so that he didn’t get something to eat in some secret manner. It was, however, merely a formality, introduced to reassure the masses, for those who understood knew well enough that during the period of fasting the hunger artist would never, under any circumstances, have eaten the slightest thing, not even if compelled by force. The honour of his art forbade it.

So we are left in no doubt that, for the artist in the cage, public fasting is a true art form. He takes it very seriously indeed, even if relatively few members of his audience do.

In the above excerpt, we can see the tension that exists between the artist and his audience. The "honor of his art" forbids him to break his fast. But in order to cater for the masses, it's necessary to have constant observers on hand to make sure that the artist doesn't cheat by eating.

The hunger artist may think he's providing art to the masses, but that's certainly not how they see it. They look at him as nothing more than a circus act, a moderately amusing sideshow. We've already seen how suspicious they are of him, how they expect him to cheat at the drop of a hat. As well as showing a lack of trust, such behavior shows a marked lack of respect for the art of public fasting:

Sometimes there were nightly groups of watchers who carried out their vigil very laxly, deliberately sitting together in a distant corner and putting all their attention into playing cards there, clearly intending to allow the hunger artist a small refreshment, which, according to their way of thinking, he could get from some secret supplies.

And yet, the hunger artist, like all artists, ultimately needs an audience of some kind. He simply cannot do without them, however ignorant, insensitive, and philistine they are.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team