"A Hunger Artist" Franz Kafka

The following presents criticism on Kafka's short story "Ein Hungerkünstler" ("The Hunger Artist"; 1922). See also, The Metamorphosis Criticism and Franz Kafka Criticism.

"A Hunger Artist" is often considered one of Kafka's best works and one of the most powerful and perfectly crafted short stories ever written. It was first published in the periodical Die Neue Rundschau in 1922 and subsequently included as the title piece in the short story collection that was the last book published by Kafka during his lifetime. "A Hunger Artist" explores the familiar Kafka themes of death, art, isolation, asceticism, spiritual poverty, futility, personal failure, and the corruption of human relationships. Some critics have argued that it is one of Kafka's most autobiographical works, viewing the story as a depiction of the isolation and alienation of the modern artist, a condition keenly felt by Kafka himself.

Plot and Major Characters

"A Hunger Artist" is told retrospectively, looking several decades back from "today," to a time when interest in the spectacle of a professional hunger artist—a person with the ability to fast for many days—was intense. It then depicts the waning of interest in such displays. The story begins with a general description of "the hunger artist" as a type of performer, and then almost imperceptibly narrows in on a single practitioner of the "art"—the protagonist. The hunger artist performed in a cage around which curious spectators crowded. He was attended by teams of watchers—usually three butchers—who ensured that he was not eating in secret. Despite such precautions, many—including some of the watchers themselves—were convinced that the hunger artist cheated. Such suspicions annoyed the hunger artist, as did the forty-day limit imposed on his fasting by his promoter, or "impresario." The impresario insisted that after forty days public sympathy for the hunger artist inevitably declined. The hunger artist, however, found the time limit irksome and arbitrary, as it prevented him from bettering his own record, from fasting indefinitely. At the end of a fast the hunger artist, amid highly theatrical fanfare, would be carried from his cage and made to eat, both of which acts he always resented.

These performances, followed by intervals of recuperation, were repeated for many years. Despite his fame, the hunger artist felt dissatisfied and misunderstood. If a spectator, observing his apparent melancholy, tried to console him, he would erupt in fury, shaking the bars of his cage. The impresario would punish such outbursts by apologizing to the audience, pointing out that irritability was a consequence of fasting. He would then mention the hunger artist's boast that he could fast much longer than he was doing, but would show photographs of the hunger artist near death at the end of a previous fast. In this way he suggested that the hunger artist's sadness was caused by fasting, when, in the hunger artist's view, he was depressed because he was not allowed to fast more. The impresario's "perversion of the truth" further exasperated the hunger artist.

Seemingly overnight, popular tastes changed and public fasting went out of fashion. The hunger artist broke his ties with the impresario and hired himself to a circus, where he hoped to perform truly prodigious feats of fasting. No longer a main attraction, he was given a cage on the outskirts of the circus, near the animal cages. Although the site was readily accessible, and crowds thronged past on their way to see the animals, any spectators who stopped to see him created an obstruction in the flow of people on their way to the animals. At first the hunger artist looked forward to the passing of the crowds, but in time he grew irritated by the noise and disruption caused by the people, and the stench, the roaring, and the feeding of the animals depressed him. Eventually, the hunger artist was completely ignored. No one, not even the artist himself, counted the days of his fast. One day an overseer noticed the hunger artist's cage with its dirty straw. He wondered why the cage was unused; when he and the attendants inspected it, however, they found the hunger artist near death. Before he died he asked forgiveness and confessed that he should not be admired, since the reason he fasted was simply that he could not find food to his liking. The hunger artist was buried with the straw of his cage and replaced by a leopard. Spectators crowded about the leopard's cage.

Major Themes

There is a sharp division among critical interpretations of "A Hunger Artist." Most commentators concur that the story is an allegory, but they disagree as to what is represented. Some critics, pointing to the hunger artist's asceticism, regard him as a saintly or even Christ-like figure. In support of this view they emphasize the unworldliness of the protagonist, the priest-like quality of the watchers, and the traditional religious significance of the forty-day period. Other critics insist that "A Hunger Artist" is an allegory of the misunderstood artist, whose vision of transcendence and artistic excellence is rejected or ignored by the public. This interpretation is sometimes joined with a reading of the story as autobiographical. According to this view, this story, written near the end of Kafka's life, links the hunger artist with the author as an alienated artist who is dying. Whether the protagonist's striving is seen as spiritual or artistic, the leopard is regarded as the hunger artist's antithesis: satisfied and contented, the animal's corporeality stands in marked contrast to the hunger artist's ethereality. A final interpretive division surrounds the issue of whether "A Hunger Artist" is meant to be read ironically. Some critics consider the story a sympathetic depiction of a misunderstood artist who seeks to rise above the merely animal parts of human nature (represented by the leopard) and who is confronted with uncomprehending audiences. Others regard it as Kafka's ironic comment on artistic pretensions. Here the leopard signifies a positive life-affirming force opposing the hunger artist's impulse towards death.

Critical Reception

Both within and apart from the debates surrounding the thematic and allegorical significance of "A Hunger Artist," critics have explored a number of other issues. Heinz Pollitzer has observed that in order to achieve fulfillment in his art the hunger artist must die, and he links this to an overall "paradox of existence." Similarly, Claude-Edmonde Magny has seen in the hunger artist's isolation a "fundamental solitude" that is part of the human condition. Forrest L. Ingram has explored the theme of anxiety in "A Hunger Artist," finding several levels of tension in the story, and Patrick Mahony has interpreted the work from a psychoanalytic perspective. Paulo Medeiros has pointed out that the hunger artist displays many of the symptoms of anorexia. A number of critics have examined "A Hunger Artist" in the context of Kafka's other works, and some have detected affinities to literature by other authors, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Baudelaire, and others. Commentators have been nearly unanimous in their praise of the organization and structure of "A Hunger Artist" and have extolled Kafka's brilliant fusion of fantastic and realistic elements in this work.

Claude-Edmonde Magny (essay date 1945


SOURCE: "The Objective Depiction of Absurdity," in Quarterly Review of Literature, Vol. 2, No. 3, 1945, pp. 211-27.

[In the following excerpt, Magny discusses the theme of "fundamental solitude" in "A Hunger Artist."]

One must not look on Kafka merely as a spirit of denial, who ridicules all human ambitions because he cannot comprehend their nobility: he feels on the contrary very strongly the nobility of any aspiration or effort, whatever its object. The end of the ape's Report [in "A Report to an Academy"] is full of legitimate pride, the pride of the life that has attained exactly the goal it set and which does not admit the suggestion that...

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Robert W. Stallman (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: "Kafka's Cage," in Accent, Vol. 8, No. 2, Winter, 1948, pp. 117-25.

[In the essay below, Stallman investigates "A Hunger Artist" as both a metaphysical allegory portraying "the dilemma of modern man: his spiritual disunity" and a sociological allegory depicting "the dilemma of the modern artist: his dissociation from the world in which he lives."]

"The Hunger-Artist" is one of Kafka's perfections and belongs with the greatest short stories of our time. Its theme of the corruption of inter-human relationships, as Winkler defines it, recurs throughout Kafka's work and has its perfect achievement here in this intrinsic whole.

The world of a Kafka...

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Meno Spann (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: "Franz Kafka's Leopard," in The Germanic Review, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, April, 1959, pp. 85-104.

[In the following excerpt. Spann argues that the images in 'À Hunger Artist" symbolize Kafka's own personal experiences rather than abstract allegories.]

In contrast to most of Kafka's other short narratives, "Ein Hungerkünstler" has a detailed, closely-knit plot which can be clearly outlined.

A hunger artist, easily the best in his field, enjoys great popularity, but nevertheless he is frustrated because neither his impresario nor the spectators properly appreciate his achievements. The impresario does not permit him to break his fasting...

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H. M. Waidson (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "The Starvation Artist and the Leopard," in The Germanic Review, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, December, 1960, pp. 262-69.

[In the following essay, Waidson disagrees with Meno Spann's interpretation of the roles of the occupants of the cage in "A Hunger Artist" and seeks to "restore the starvation-artist to his former central position and relegate the leopard to a less exalted status. "]

In his imaginative writing Kafka gives an impression of being at an immense distance from the people and creatures he describes, and the effects of humor and controlled melancholy are intensified by this appearance of objectivity. The short story "Ein Hungerkünstler" in particular has...

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Harry Steinhauer (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "Hunger Artist or Artist in Hungering: Kafka's 'A Hunger Artist'," in Criticism, Vol. IV, No. 1, Winter, 1962, pp. 28-43.

[In the following excerpt, Steinhauer interprets "A Hunger Artist" as a religious allegory depicting "the tragedy . . . of ascetic idealism." This interpretation, he claims, "fits the text in every detail, naturally, without stretching the correspondence between symbol and thing symbolized, and it is the only one that does so. "]

Since the first wave of Kafka criticism washed over us in the thirties there has been a rising tide of interpretations of Kafka's work: theological, sociological, existentialist, ethnic, psychoanalytic, even...

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Heinz Politzer (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "Heightened Redemption: Testaments and Last Stories," in Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox, Cornell, 1962, pp. 282-333.

[In the following excerpt, Politzer praises "A Hunger Artist" as "a perfection, a fatal fulfillment that expresses Kafka's desire for permanence.]

[With "A Hunger Artist"] Kafka returns to the motif of the unknown nourishment which he had introduced in The Metamorphosis. In the earlier story this image pointed quite generally to the never-to-be disclosed mystery governing man's life. Here it has been integrated in the theme of art, the Hunger Artist's art.

The tale deals with the art of fasting as well as with...

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Forrest L. Ingram (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "Franz Kafka: Ein Hungerkünstler," in Representative Short Story Cycles of the Twentieth Century: Studies in a Literary Genre, Mouton, 1971, pp. 46-105.

[In the following excerpt, Ingram examines the theme of anxiety in "A Hunger Artist. "]

Situations which excite and heighten anxiety abound in "A Hunger Artist": the fasting showman is forcibly isolated (in a cage) from the community of man. He is questing toward a goal which he is not allowed to reach. Each step toward that goal leads him closer and closer to death. The shift of interest in fasting threatens the economic security of the Impresario and the stability of the Lebensweise of the...

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Richard W. Sheppard (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Kafka's Ein Hungerkünstler: A Reconsideration," in The German Quarterly, Vol. XLVI, No. 2, March, 1973, pp. 219-33.

[In the following essay, Sheppard examines the role of the narrator and its relationship to the central character of "A Hunger Artist. "]

In the general attempt to say what the figure of Kafka's Hunger Artist signifies, scarcely any attention has been paid to another person in the story who is at least as important as the Hunger Artist: the narrator. On the whole, it has been assumed that the narrator is Kafka himself, if perhaps speaking in an odd voice. But this is not the case. In fact, the narrator has a distinct personality and...

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Patrick Mahony (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "A Hunger Artist: Content and Form," in American Imago, Vol. 35, No. 4, Winter, 1978, pp. 357-74.

[In the excerpt below, Mahony analyzes Kafka's literary technique in "A Hunger Artist" and provides a psychoanalytic interpretation of the story.]

In a recent book on applied psychoanalysis, two critics have rightly said that "Kafka's 'A Hunger Artist' is perhaps one of the most powerful, perfectly told tales ever written" [Morton Kaplan and Robert Kloss, "Fantasy of the Devouring Killer: Kafka's A Hunger Artist," in The Unspoken Motive: A Guide to Psychoanalytic Criticism, 1973]. Most of the power of Kafka's story, I would add, comes from the...

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Allen Thiher (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "A Hunger Artist," in Franz Kafka: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne Publishers, 1990, pp. 80-96.

[In the following excerpt, Thiher examines "A Hunger Artist" in the context of Kafka's ironic commentary on the role of the artist throughout several of his works.]

The notion of the "artist" in postromantic Germany could still conjure up the image of a creative demiurge, though Kafka's artists hardly fit this description. They are more likely to call forth a snicker. Kafka is hardly the first writer to present the artist as a laughter-provoking beast hardly worthy of serious consideration; I ask the reader to consider the following lamentation about the poet's...

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Frederick R. Karl (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Modernism and Death, Kafka and Death," in Franz Kafka: Representative Man, Ticknor & Fields, 1991, pp. 678-81.

[In this excerpt, Karl analyzes "A Hunger Artist" in the context of Kafka's life and times.]

Kafka in "A Hunger Artist" was not merely creating emblems of the self. He was playing roles, as he had in his letters and in many other of his fictional works. The role he played out was that of a man who feared invalidation of self more than he feared death: he had to carry through in his imagination the most extreme form of art to justify himself as an artist, although his justification led to the artist's death. It was better to play such an extreme...

(The entire section is 1716 words.)

Paulo Medeiros (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Cannibalism and Starvation: The Parameters of Eating Disorders in Literature," in Disorderly Eaters: Texts in Self-Empowerment, edited by Lilian R. Furst and Peter W. Graham, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992, pp. 11-27.

[In the following excerpt, Medeiros asserts that Kafka's hunger artist exhibits the same characteristics as actual anorexics.]

[Kafka's Hunger Artist,] in his voluntary denial of any form of consumption . . . approximates the actual behavior of anorexics. Kafka's story, like most of his writing, hinges on a paradox and the resulting aporia—in this case, the confession made by the Hunger Artist, just before he expires, that...

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Frank Vulpi (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Kafka's A Hunger Artist: A Cautionary Tale for Fausti an Man Caught Between Creativity and Communion," in Germanic Notes and Reviews, Vol. 24, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 9-12.

[In the following essay, Vulpi views Kafka's hunger artist as a representation of the Faustian man, one who "pursues an idea or creates something primarily to please himself, gain power, or satisy his ego."]

Whether or not Kafka's "A Hunger Artist" ("Ein Hungerkünstler") is about the fate of the artist in twentieth-century society has been a much-discussed question. Critic Meno Spann [in Franz Kafka, 1976] comments as follows:

The word...

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Further Reading

Arbuckle, Donald E. and James B. Misenheimer, Jr. "Personal Failure in 'The Egg' and 'A Hunger Artist'." The Winesburg Eagle: The Official Publication of the Sherwood Anderson Society 8, No. 2 (April 1983): 1-3.

Compares the fates of the protagonists in Sherwood Anderson's "The Egg" and Kafka's "A Hunger Artist." In both cases, the critics note, "the protagonists try to make their bleak existences important to others and fail miserably."

Foulkes, A. P. "The Cage Image in Ein Bericht für Eine Akademie and Ein Hungerkünstler" In The Reluctant Pessimist: A Study of Franz Kafka, pp. 90-7. The Hague: Mouton, 1967.


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