Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.