A Hunger Artist Questions and Answers
by Franz Kafka

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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.

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"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.

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