A Hunger Artist

by Franz Kafka

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Style and Technique

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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.

Historical Context

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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...

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before and after their fasts. In light of this, Kafka may have combined a different type of entertainer with the professional fasters in creating his character. Claude Ambroise Seurat, ‘‘The Living Skeleton,’’ whose anatomy was excessively bony and skeletal, was exhibited in ‘‘freak show’’ type performances, very different from that of the professional fasters.

With the development of twentieth-century forms of mass entertainment, the place of ‘‘hunger artists’’ had indeed declined by the time Kafka wrote his story. And, in fact, this decline occurred simultaneously with the newer practice in circus entertainment of displaying wild animals, often big cats such as lions and leopards. Mitchell concludes that ‘‘from beginning to end, Kafka’s tale accurately reflects an actual development in the history of European popular culture.’’

Prague’s Caf Life and Literary Salons
Prague boasted an active caf culture during this time, where artists and intellectuals met at informal ‘‘salons.’’ The Caf Continental, of which Kafka was a regular attendant, was a well-known location for one such salon. Others he frequented included the Caf Arco, Caf Central, and the Caf Louvre. Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and editor, described these meeting places as ‘‘free and open to ideas, crammed together in four or five rooms, smoky, stifling, thick with the fumes of mocha coffee.’’ More organized forums for literary discussion were various literary meetings and clubs. Kafka became associated with the ‘‘Prague Circle,’’ an internationally recognized literary society of German-Jewish authors.

German Literary Movements
While Kafka never explicitly subscribed to any particular literary movement, he was associated with the fashionable literati of his day and his writing is now understood as representative of several schools of literature. Prominent schools of thought in the early part of the twentieth century included Expressionism and Symbolism, both of which Kafka is now considered a key example. Expressionism, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, was the ‘‘key movement in German literature’’ in the World War I era. The expressionist style ‘‘emphasized the inner significance of things and not their external forms.’’ Kafka’s influence by, and contribution to, expressionism took the form of a ‘‘negative vision,’’ in which ‘‘with the stark clarity of a nightmare, he depicted the horror and uncertainty of human existence.’’ Like expressionism, the symbolist movement emphasized the inner world, creating a literary style described as dreamlike or nightmarish.

At the time of Kafka’s birth in 1883, the city of Prague was ruled under the Hapsburg Empire, as part of the Kingdom of Bohemia. World War I, however, brought about significant changes in Prague’s national identity. The war, which began with the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, resulted in the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire. During the first two years after the war, Prague became the capitol of the newly formed Republic of Czechoslovakia. As part of this New Republic, Prague changed from a city dominated by German language and culture to one dominated by Czech language and culture. However, because he spoke Czech as well as German, Kafka was able to keep his job, even though he was the ‘‘token’’ Jew in his company.

Jews in Prague
During Kafka’s lifetime, Prague was ‘‘a city of three peoples.’’ In 1900, the city of a half-million people was populated mostly by Czechs. Germans, however, while only about six percent of the population, made up the dominant culture of Prague. At five percent of the population, the Jews in Prague spoke German and identified themselves with German culture. Most Jews, however, like Kafka, lived in Josefov, the Jewish ‘‘ghetto,’’ a walled-off section of the city which served to maintain segregation of Jews from the rest of the population.

Many Jews at this time, like Kafka’s father, were assimilationist, meaning that they largely ignored their Jewish identity in hopes of blending into the dominant German culture. However, anti- Semitism from both Czechs and Germans meant that neither accepted the Jews as their own. As a result, Jews in Prague were always seen as the scapegoats of either ethnic group in times of crisis, and waves of anti-Semitic rioting swept through the Jewish ghetto in times of national unrest. The Czech population, for instance, went through waves of nationalist sentiment, during which they targeted the Jews as the most visible and hated element associated with German culture. Other riots on the part of anti-Semitic German sentiments also swept through the ghetto.

Literary Style

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Point of view
‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ is written from a thirdperson limited perspective, meaning that the narrator is an abstract voice, not a character in the story. But the story is told mostly from the perspective, or point-of-view, of the hunger artist. Only in the final paragraph, as the hunger artist is dying, does the narrational perspective broaden out.

Imagery and SymbolismHunger. The most prominent symbolic motif in ‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ is hunger. This ‘‘hunger’’ motif is characterized by the hunger artist’s lifelong feelings of dissatisfaction. No matter how successful and famous he becomes, the hunger artist remains ‘‘unsatisfied’’ and ‘‘troubled in spirit.’’ Hunger symbolises both a lust for life and a spiritual yearning. The Hunger Artist’s dying admission is that, ‘‘I have to fast, I can’t help it.... 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.’’ His inability to find the food that he likes is symbolic of his inability to engage in ‘‘the joy of life’’ or find spiritual fulfillment.

The Cage. The hunger artist spends most of his life sitting in a display ‘‘cage.’’ The image of the cage strewn with straw, set finally at the entrance to the ‘‘menagerie’’ in a circus, draws a parallel between the hunger artist and the caged animals in the circus. When he is particularly frustrated by his audience’s questions, the hunger artist would ‘‘shake the bars of his cage like a wild animal.’’ The setting of the ‘‘cage’’ is also reflective of the settings of entrapment and images of claustrophobia in a number of Kafka’s stories where the main character (whether animal or human) is confined to, or nearly imprisoned in, a single room or other cage-like location. In this case, it represents not just a literal cage, but a psychological and spiritual cage of his own making. In other words, he freely chooses to maintain a profession which bars him from humanity and the flow of life, its physical, social and even spiritual pleasures.

The Panther. The powerful image that ends this story, that of the panther who replaces the hunger artist in his cage at the circus, brings together the symbolic implications of the hunger imagery which runs throughout the story. Unlike the hunger artist, whose body is emaciated, and who lives in a figurative as well as literal cage, on the verge of starvation and death, the panther’s ‘‘noble body, furnished almost to the bursting point with all that it needed, seemed to carry freedom around with it.’’ Furthermore, unlike the hunger artist, whose lack of appetite symbolizes a lack of lust for life, in the panther ‘‘the joy of life streamed with such ardent passion from his throat that for the onlookers it was not easy to stand the shock of it.’’ Finally, the hunger artist, while literally free (he chooses to be put in a cage), is a prisoner of his own mind; the panther, by contrast, while held in captivity, carries ‘‘freedom’’ within his own body.

Allegory and ParableAllegory. Allegory is the general term used to describe stories in which the meaning is not so much in the literal elements of the story, but is to be understood on a symbolic level, hidden or buried beneath the surface meaning. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines allegory as expressing ‘‘spiritual, psychological, or abstract intellectual concepts in terms of material and concrete objects.’’ In allegories, the details of the story ‘‘are found to correspond to the details of some other system or relations.’’ The Encyclopaedia Britannica states that Kafka’s stories represent ‘‘the most original use of allegory in the 20th Century.’’ Kafka’s use of allegory is particularly enigmatic as his stories are ‘‘not susceptible of any single or precise interpretation.’’ ‘‘A Hunger Artist,’’ with it’s absurd premise that fasting is in fact an ‘‘art,’’ which for the hunger artist is central to all of life’s dilemmas, invites the reader to search for a greater meaning than simply the internal thoughts of a hunger artist. The central symbol of ‘‘hunger,’’ for instance, suggests themes of spiritual, social, psychological and existential yearnings.

Parable. ‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ can more specifi- cally be described as a type of allegory called a ‘‘parable.’’ Kafka’s use of parable has been described in the Encyclopaedia Britannica as ‘‘one of the most enigmatic in modern literature.’’ While this story clearly invites us to search for a deeper or more abstract meaning, it leaves us with no sense of certainty about what that meaning might be.

This story shares a quality of ‘‘absurdism’’ practiced by a number of writers in the twentieth century, of which Kafka is one of the foremost. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the absurd element of a story is that of ‘‘the tragicomic nature of the contemporary human image and predicament,’’ and is primarily represented through images of the ‘‘grotesque.’’ The hunger artist builds his profession on his ability to display his own emaciated body as a ‘‘grotesque’’ form. At the point of death, he is hardly a human figure. His life of alienation from human society and perpetual dissatisfaction with himself and others is depicted as ‘‘tragic.’’ But this story also has an element of humor which gives it an absurd quality. While sympathizing with the hunger artist’s feelings, how can one not break into a wry smile at the very notion of fasting as an ‘‘art’’ which can be ‘‘performed’’ as a source of entertainment? How can one not experience a nagging feeling that perhaps the hunger artist is taking his art a little too seriously?

Compare and Contrast

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1883-1924: At the time of Kafka’s birth in 1883, the city of Prague was ruled under the Hapsburg Empire, as part of the Kingdom of Bohemia. World War I, however, brought about significant changes in Prague’s national identity. The War, which began with the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, resulted in the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire. During the first two years after the War, Prague became the capitol of the newly formed Republic of Czechoslovakia. As part of this new Republic, Prague changed from a city dominated by German language and culture to one dominated by Czech language and culture.

1990s: With the end of the Cold War, signified by the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, Prague was released from communist rule and made the capitol of the newly formed Czech Republic. As part of the Czech Republic, Prague has undergone a major transformation. There is now a free market, tourism, relaxing of censorship, and the welcoming of American enterprises, such as MacDonald’s, into the city.

1883-1924: Though not widely recognized during his lifetime, Kafka was well-respected within his small literary, intellectual circle in Prague, who were aware of his considerable talents. Kafka published his first prose pieces at the age of 25 in Hyperion, a journal edited by his close friend Max Brod. Throughout his brief life, he continued to publish in journals, as well as several small volumes of his stories. He died in relative obscurity, many of his stories and novels still unpublished. A number of his unpublished manuscripts were destroyed during a Nazi raid on his companion Dora Diamont’s apartment, and his work was not made available in Prague until a decade after his death.

1990s: Franz Kafka is indisputably one of the most important and influential writers of the twentieth century. However, in regard to the meaning of his stories, there is little in the way of critical consensus. Perhaps as a result, there is no sign of retreat on the part of critics from adding to the mounds of published critical material on Kafka.

1883–1924: Prague boasted an active caf culture during Kafka’s lifetime, where artists and intellectuals met as informal ‘‘salons.’’ The Caf Continental, of which Kafka was a regular attendant, was a well-known location for one such salon. More organized forums for literary discussion were various literary meetings and clubs. Kafka became associated with the ‘‘Prague Circle,’’ an internationally recognized literary society of German-Jewish authors.

1990s: Since the end of the Cold War, the city of Prague’s association with Kafka has become a tourist attraction. The area of the city which was once Kafka’s loved and hated Jewish ghetto has become an American-influenced tourist trap, complete with Kafka T-shirts, souvenirs and guided tours. As David Zane has cynically, although perhaps realistically, described this phenomenon, Kafka is now ‘‘finding his place amidst the KITSCH.’’ Zane goes on to explain that, ‘‘After years of ignoring him or treating him as a pariah, the new Czech Republic is finally discovering its strange Jewish son, no longer a threat and suddenly BANKABLE, as a tourist attraction.’’ He concludes, ‘‘the irony would not be lost on him.’’

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Beck, Evelyn Torton. Kafka and the Yiddish Theater: Its Impact on His Work, University of Wisconsin Press, 1971, pp. 200-202.

Britannica Online [database online] , Chicago, Ill.: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1999- [cited 2 June 1999], available from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, Ill., s.v. ‘‘Allegory,’’ ‘‘The Art of Literature: DRAMA: Comedy: KINDS OF COMEDY IN DIVERSE HISTORICAL PERIODS: The absurd,’’ ‘‘The Art of Literature: NARRATIVE FICTION: Fable, parable and allegory,’’ ‘‘German Literature: The 20th century: MAJOR LITERARY TRENDS AND CONDITIONS,’’ and ‘‘Kafka, Franz.’’

Brod, Max. Franz Kafka: A Biography, Schocken Books, 1937.

Carter, F. W. ‘‘Kafka’s Prague,’’ in The World of Franz Kafka, edited by J. P. Stern, New York, Reinhart and Winston, 1980, pp. 31-32, 34-35.

Glatzer, Nahum N., ed. Kafka: The Complete Stories, New York, Schocken Books, 1971.

Kempf, Franz R. Everyone’s Darling: Kafka and the Critics of His Short Fiction, Camden House, Colombia, S.C., 1994, pp. 1-4.

Mairowitz, David Zane and Robert Crumb. Introducing Kafka, Cambridge, England, Totem Books, 1994, pp. 5, 17, 73, 154, 175.

Mitchell, Breon. ‘‘Kafka and the Hunger Artists,’’ in Kafka and the Contemporary Critical Performance, edited by Alan Udoff, Indiana University Press, 1987, pp. 238, 248, 251, 252.

Spann, Meno. Franz Kafka, Boston: Twayne, 1976.

Stern, J. P., ed. The World of Franz Kafka, New York, Reinhart and Winston, 1980.

Udoff, Alan, ed. Kafka and the Contemporary Critical Performance, Indiana University Press, 1987, pp. 1, 3.

Unseld, Joachim. Kafka: A Writer’s Life, Ariadne, Riverside, CA, 1994, pp. 225, 230, 235, 237, 238, 262, 264.

Further Reading
Beck, Evelyn Torton. Kafka and the Yiddish Theater, Its Impact on His Work, University. of Wisconsin Press, 1971. Discusses Kafka’s life and work in relation to dramas of the Yiddish Theater which Kafka frequently attended.

Gilman, Sander L. Franz Kafka: The Jewish Patient, Routledge, New York, 1995. Discusses Kafka’s life and work in relation to perceptions of tuberculosis during his lifetime, as well Kafka’s perceptions of his own body as Jewish, male, and suffering from tuberculosis.

Wagenback, Klaus. Kafka’s Prague: A Travel Reader, Overlook, Woodstock, NY, 1996. Literally a tourist guide to the contemporary city of Prague for the Kafka devotee. Includes many photos and suggested walking tours of cites significant to Kafka’s life and work.


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