Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 834
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 amusement.
Epitomizing the isolation of the hunger artist is the description of the artist’s defeated reaction to the impresario’s display of photographs. When the hunger artist reacts violently to a comforter’s advice that the artist’s melancholy springs from fasting, the impresario apologizes for the hunger artist, explaining that his moodiness and irritability indeed result from fasting. Photographs are then shown of the artist, who on the fortieth day appears almost dead from malnutrition. The hunger artist watches the audience accept the lie that his depression is caused by fasting. He alone knows that the opposite is true, that his depression comes from knowing that he will soon be forced to eat. As the photographs support the impresario’s lie and reinforce the public’s misconceptions, the hunger artist feels more frustrated in his desire for understanding: “as soon as the photographs appeared he always let go and sank with a groan back on to his straw, and the reassured public could once more come close and gaze at him.” The words “come close” point to the physical nearness and the psychological distance of the audience, while the word “gaze” emphasizes the superficiality of the public’s way of seeing.
The second part of the story describes the hunger artist’s life after the spectacle of fasting has lost its appeal. The hunger artist is now forced to dismiss the impresario and join a circus. Because he has no manager now to limit his fast, the artist hopes to achieve a record that will astonish the world. The other professionals smile at this boast, for they know that no one really cares about fasting anymore. The emaciated artist’s cage is ironically placed near the menagerie, where the artist must suffer the odors of the animals and of the raw meat that is served them. Although, in former days, the skeptical public at least displayed curiosity, the public now pays little attention to the hunger artist. The occasional visitors who wish to stand and watch him are jeered by those who believe that their journey to the animal exhibit is being impeded. The circus attendants also neglect the hunger artist. They forget to replace his straw and to change the placard indicating the length of his fast. Finally the hunger artist is forgotten altogether.
The discovery, the confession, and the death of the hunger artist provide the climax of the story. Curious about the seemingly empty cage, an overseer pokes the straw with a stick and finds the hunger artist. When asked if he is still fasting, the hunger artist whispers, “Forgive me, everybody” and explains that no one should admire his fasting because he could not help but fast. When asked why he cannot help it, the artist says, “because 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.” With this confession that there is nothing nourishing in life, the hunger artist dies. The nourishment that the hunger artist has craved has been the food of human compassion.
The story ends with the image of the wild panther that now occupies the hunger artist’s cage. The contrast between the defeated, malnourished, and spiritually imprisoned artist and the young, vital animal that seems “to carry freedom around with it” is striking. The animal that cares nothing for audience support ironically achieves the understanding and admiration never attained by the starving artist.