The narrator poses as an objective, unemotional chronicler of a dying social phenomenon. He records the early years of the profession of fasting with cold detachment and with more than a modicum of irony. For example, he exaggerates and then undercuts the moral claim of the hunger artist, describing him as “this suffering martyr, which indeed he was, although in quite another sense.” When the public loses interest in fasting, the narrator seems to smile, “at any rate the pampered hunger artist suddenly found himself deserted one fine day by the amusement seekers.” The amused tone of this cosmic chronicler adds to the reader’s sense of the artist’s growing isolation. As the historian describes the hunger artist’s experience in the circus, the tension of the narrative increases.
In this section, the narrator often expresses the yearnings and frustrations of the hunger artist: “Just try to explain to anyone the art of fasting! Anyone who has no feeling for it cannot be made to understand it.” The narrator’s voice again merges with the feelings of the artist when the viewers question the accuracy of the numbers posted on the placard: “that was in its way the stupidest lie ever invented, by indifference and inborn malice.” By shifting from an objective to a subjective perspective, the narrator emphasizes the unbridgeable gulf between the longing artist and the world. The final shift in perspective and tone comes in the description of the hunger artist’s death. The narrator now returns to the earlier, uninflected style. The rapid pace of the prose and the cold, impersonal tone emphasize the total insignificance of the artist: “’Well, clear this out now!’ said the overseer, and they buried the hunger artist, straw and all. Into the cage they put a young panther.” The closing image of the public’s admiration of the panther is a disturbing reminder that even a person’s death by slow starvation is not sufficient to disturb the placidity of the self-indulgent world.
The Hunger Artists
It may come as a surprise that ‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ is partially based on the real historical phenomenon of ‘‘professional fasting.’’ While most critics have failed to note this, Breon Mitchell, in his article, ‘‘Kafka and the Hunger Artists,’’ has brought to light the history of a world famous ‘‘hunger artist’’ whose coverage in local newspapers may have inspired Kafka’s story. Mitchell points out that ‘‘almost every detail’’ of Kafka’s story corresponds to ‘‘the actual profession of fasting for pay.’’ He states that, ‘‘The correspondence with reality is, in fact, so close that Kafka could not possibly have written the tale without some direct or indirect knowledge of the best-known hunger artists of his time.’’
The phenomenon of ‘‘professional fasting’’ lasted from 1880-1922, roughly the years of Kafka’s lifespan. The first professional fast was accomplished by Dr. Henry Tanner, an American who was said to have gone for forty days under medical observation without food. The most famous of his European imitators was Giovanni Succi, on whom Kafka’s story was most likely based. Giovanni ‘‘performed’’ fasts at least 30 different times, for periods of up to 30 days, in various European cities. Many imitators followed in the path of Anderson and Succi, achieving varying levels of success as professional fasters.
Although not in cages, these hunger artists were generally displayed in some form of confinement. Like Kafka’s hunger artist, some of them even sold photographs of themselves at various stages of previous fasts. However, in general, these professional fasters had normal body types and looked relatively healthy (not the least bit emaciated) both before and after their fasts. In...
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