A Hunger Artist

by Franz Kafka

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What are the symbols and ironies in "A Hunger Artist"?

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In Kafka's classic short story "A Hunger Artist," the main symbols are:

  • the hunger artist vs. the crowds of onlookers: establishes the themes spirituality vs. decadence; individualism vs. conformity.  Is being a hunger artist a profession (by which one makes money and a name for oneself) or a spiritual fasting to eliminate desire?
  • "the all-important striking of the clock that was the only piece of furniture in his cage"...: establishes the theme of time; the hunger artist was in vogue, but no more (which is to say that spirituality is a thing of the past).
  • food: establishes the theme of materialism and desire.
  • the circus: undercuts the theme of individuality and spirituality; he is a side-show professional who signs a contract
  • the animal: a parody and foil of the hunger artist, the animal is driven by excessive appetite; he is an exhibit in a zoo.

It is ironic that:

  • ...butchers are the ones to watch the hunger artist to make sure he's not sneaking a meal
  • ...children are more fascinated by the hunger artist than the older adults.  Shouldn't the adults worry more about their souls?
  • ...the hunger artist is replaced by an animal who eats and likes being fed and like being in a cage and does not miss his freedom
  • his dying words are "Because 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."  Did he fast out of habit or the distaste for food?  Both seem practical or biological and suggest a lack of spirituality and true asceticism.  Is modern man going through the motions of spirituality out of some mindless habit or lack of meaningful alternative?  This is both ironic and absurd.

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