A Hunger Artist

by Franz Kafka

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Student Question

What is the setting of "A Hunger Artist" and does it play an important role?

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The setting of "A Hunger Artist" is a time of transition, as the hunger artist's profession loses popularity, and he eventually joins a circus, becoming a sideshow on the way to view the animals. This sense of transition, and the imagery contained within it, is actually very important to the story's themes, containing an irony that powerfully expresses the madness and futility that permeates modernity.

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Kafka's "A Hunger Artist" is set in a time of transition, amid changing expectations of entertainment, with the hunger artist himself caught within this transition, with his occupation and "art" becoming obsolete.

Kafka's story begins by depicting the hunger artist in his glory days, before his profession had lost its popularity, when the hunger artist was himself an object of widespread fascination and a popular attraction in and of himself. Yet, even at the height of his professional career, Kafka's character feels frustrated, convinced that he could surpass the forty-day limit imposed upon him in further advancement of his art. From here, however, the story depicts his profession going into decline, as the people lose interest in fasting. At this point, he hires himself out to a circus, becoming nothing but a sideshow on the way to view the animals.

I'd suggest that this setting, and this contrast Kafka establishes between these two periods, is actually critical to the story's themes. Ultimately, note that the story itself is shaped by a kind of irony: it is only when no one is watching and no one cares anymore that the hunger artist is finally permitted to fast as he has always wished, with no limits imposed upon him. Of course, by that point, it does not matter anyway, given that no one is paying attention, and even the hunger artist himself recognizes the futility and meaninglessness of his actions (even as he continues his fast regardless).

This reflects one of the most famous themes running across Kafka's writing: the sense of futility and even insanity that permeates the modern world. The irony represented in the hunger artist is itself a manifestation of this insanity, as his entire art is one built on self-delusion, with the artist investing in his art a sense of importance it never possessed in the first place.

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