A Hunger Artist

by Franz Kafka

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 409

The lack of specific names for the hunger artist, the impresario, and the members of the audience suggests the symbolic nature of the story. The hunger artist may represent any artist or any person whose art or existence is grounded on a conviction of life’s meaninglessness. The hunger artist, as his name implies, craves nourishment. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the food desired is spiritual and that physical starvation is merely a metaphor for the soul’s malnourishment. The artist’s devotion to the art of starvation ironically demands that while consciously attempting to win understanding, he unconsciously must discourage human sympathy. He thus encages himself, turns himself into a grotesque, appeals to the sympathy of people who relish freak shows, refuses to verbalize his feelings, and in the end buries himself under straw.

Reflecting a tasteless, monotonous world, the performance proceeds by an absence of action. This passive art ensures the slow deterioration of an already fragile bond between the performer and his viewers. The many allusions to Christ emphasize the parodic nature of the hunger artist’s martyrdom. When the hunger artist at the end of a forty-day fast is helped from his cage by two frightened women, his outstretched arms form a cross. The hunger artist, however, unlike Christ, suffers not to affirm spiritual life but to reveal the absence of hope. The hunger artist’s consummate performance, the perfection of the art of negation, is death.

The alternatives offered by the story are bleak. The hunger artist with his heightened sensitivity and unhealthy narcissism stands for one way of experiencing life, and the impresario, the public, and the overseer, complacent and uncaring, reveal an alternative way of seeing and feeling. The panther that captivates the interest of the public is placed against these human extremes. Unlike the hunger artist, the panther will devour anything. The animal possesses the joy of life and the sense of freedom that is beyond human reach: “Somewhere freedom seemed to lurk; and 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.” The cat displays a vibrant, wild beauty, for its predatory nature is fitting to its species. However, although the crowd and the impresario possess a similar voracious appetite and hardness, they are despicable caricatures of human beings. However, their lack of insight makes them, like the panther, survivors.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 765

Alienation & Isolation
‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ is the story of one man’s feelings of intense alienation and isolation. This state, however, is partly self-imposed, a necessary condition of his ‘‘art.’’ The hunger artist spends his fasting performances, and therefore most of his life, in a cage, on display before nameless crowds. Beck has observed that his need to fast is ‘‘symbolic of his isolation from the community of men.’’ The cage itself symbolizes the barrier between the artist and the rest of the world. During most of his fasts (which last for up to forty days), the artist sits in a meditative state, ‘‘withdrawing deep into himself, paying no attention to anyone or anything.’’ His personal life is therefore almost completely internally, although he is constantly on public display.

Spiritual Yearning
References to spiritual yearning and religious symbolism in ‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ are subtle but pervasive. Critic Meno Spann has analyzed the food imagery in Kafka’s writing and concluded that ‘‘for Kafka, physical deprivation or hunger represents spiritual hunger and is associated with the ‘unknown nourishment’ so many of Kafka’s characters seek.’’

The hunger artist is also described as a religious ‘‘martyr,’’ although his martyrdom is based on his own professional frustrations rather than any spiritual enlightenment. At the public spectacle which ended each fast, the impresario ‘‘lifted his arms in the air above the artist, as if inviting Heaven to look down upon its creature here in the straw, this suffering martyr, which indeed he was, although in quite another sense.’’ The hunger artist’s professional success does not make up for his spiritual emptiness as he spends much of his life ‘‘in visible glory, honored by the world, yet in spite of that troubled in spirit, and all the more troubled because no one would take his trouble seriously.’’ Ironically, while fasting is associated with devotion to God, the hunger artist’s fasts seem only to exacerbate what Max Brod has maintained to be a central concern of Kafka’s writing: ‘‘the anguish and perplexity of modern man in search of God.’’

The Joy of Life
In addition to spiritual hunger, the hunger artist also suffers from an inability to engage in ‘‘the joy of life.’’ In spite of his professional success, the hunger artist is ‘‘never satisfied.’’ Food, for obvious reasons, symbolizes life, and the hunger artist’s inability to find ‘‘the food that I liked’’ symbolizes his inability to muster a passion for living. The relationship between an appetite for food and a ‘‘passion’’ for life in this story is best illustrated by the final image of the panther who replaces the hunger artist in the circus cage. In contrast to the hunger artist, the panther’s hearty appetite is a measure of his joi d’vivire (joy of life), for ‘‘the food he liked was brought him without hesitation,’’ and his ‘‘noble body’’ was ‘‘furnished almost to the bursting point with all that it needed.’’ In keeping with the panther’s satisfaction with his meals, ‘‘the joy of life streamed with ardent passion from his throat.’’

Change and Transformation
‘‘We live in a different world now,’’ the opening paragraph proclaims. The hunger artist’s professional downfall is due to circumstances beyond his control: ‘‘it seemed to happen almost overnight.’’ Times are changing and the form of entertainment he provides is no longer popular with the masses, who have moved on to ‘‘other more favored attractions.’’ In fact, his ‘‘art’’ comes to be despised, as ‘‘everywhere, as if by secret agreement, a positive revulsion from professional fasting was in evidence.’’ The artist’s frustration with the whole world is partly due to his feeling that these inevitable cultural changes are simply unfair. He can hardly accept that he has been outmoded.

The Suffering Artist in the Modern World
The artist’s sense of alienation is partly a function of his lifelong struggle over the feeling that no one but he himself fully understands and appreciates his art. As one critic has explained, the hunger artist represents ‘‘a symbol or allegory of the suffering artist in society.’’ He alone knows the truth about his accomplishments: ‘‘to fight against this lack of understanding, against a whole world of nonunderstanding, was impossible.’’ ‘‘Just try to explain to anyone the art of fasting! Anyone who has no feeling for it cannot be made to understand it.’’ He in fact blames the ‘‘whole world’’ for not granting him the ‘‘satisfaction’’ he feels her deserves: ‘‘It was not the hunger artist who was cheating, but the whole world was cheating him of his reward.’’

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