A Hunger Artist | Study Guide

Franz Kafka

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Course Hero. "A Hunger Artist Study Guide." Course Hero. 7 June 2019. Web. 24 July 2021. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Hunger-Artist/>.

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In-Depth Summary & Analysis

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth analysis of the plot, characters, symbols, and themes of Franz Kafka's short story A Hunger Artist.

A Hunger Artist | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

The Spectacle Begins

An unnamed narrator describes how in the last few decades, interest in hunger artists has declined. In its early days, hunger artists made good money by putting on major productions, but things have changed. Entire cities were once captivated by the spectacle, with people staying all night to watch. The adults consider it a joke, but the children are amazed. All that furnishes the hunger artist's cage is a clock and a small glass of water. Three observers are chosen to watch the hunger artist day and night to ensure he doesn't eat anything. Yet this is only a formality, because the honor of being a hunger artist forbids eating. The observers don't always understand this, so sometimes they are lax in their vigilance, pretending to allow the hunger artist to sneak food. This depresses the hunger artist and makes his fasting difficult. Sometimes the hunger artist will sing in order to prove he is not eating. Indeed, the hunger artist prefers the observers who watch him closely, so he can show them he is fasting in a way no one else can. Yet he is most happy when morning comes and a lavish breakfast is brought for the observers at his own expense. Because no one is able to watch the hunger artist day and night, no one can truly know whether his fasting is uninterrupted. Only the hunger artist can truly know; therefore, he can be the only spectator truly satisfied.

The Motivations of the Hunger Artist

The hunger artist knows something that not even the initiates of hunger artistry know—it is easy to fast. The impresario has set the maximum length of fasting time at 40 days. This is mostly for the reason that people only stay interested in the fast for that amount of time before its popularity declines. On the 40th day, the door of the cage is opened, and an enthusiastic audience fills the amphitheater while a military band plays. Two doctors enter the cage to measure the hunger artist, and the results are delivered to the crowd. Two young women lead the hunger artist out of the cage to a table where a meal has been laid out, and it is at this moment the hunger artist tries to fight back. He feels he could have kept going, and it is a waste to stop now. The hunger artist wishes to surpass himself, feeling there are no limits to his capacity.

The impresario comes and raises his arms over the hunger artist, lifting him into the arms of one of two specially selected waiting women. She begins to cry at the immensity of her task and is relieved by an attendant who leads him to a table laden with a small meal. The impresario puts some food in the mouth of the hunger artist, who is nearly unconscious. A toast is proposed to the public with a fanfare orchestra. Only the hunger artist remains dissatisfied by the spectacle.

The Hunger Artist's Disillusion and Audience Indifference

The hunger artist lives this way for many years, taking only small breaks. Yet despite being honored for his accomplishments, his mood only grows worse, because he believes no one takes the meaning of his performance seriously. He feels he has nothing left to wish for and nothing to give him consolation. The impresario blames the hunger artist's outbursts on his hunger, and tells the audience that the hunger artist could starve himself longer than 40 days. Yet he also shows them a photo of the hunger artist on the 40th day, looking nearly dead. The hunger artist sees this as a perversion of the truth, and it strains his nerves, since people believe that the length of his fast is the reason for his strain when actually it is the premature ending that strains him. When the people who witnessed these scenes think back on them years later, they are unable to understand it. Over time, the audiences abandon the hunger artist, even while the impresario takes him around Europe one more time. The hunger artist feels he cannot lower himself to performing in show booths at small fun fairs, and also that he is too old to find a different profession. He says farewell to the impresario and joins a large circus, refusing to even look at the terms of his contract.

The Final Act

The hunger artist sees the large circus as an opportunity to truly amaze people for the first time with no limitations on his fasting. Yet the circus doesn't place his cage in the center of the arena as a main attraction. Instead, he is located along the way to the animal cages, which means people rarely linger to see him in their eagerness to get to the wild beasts. Every now and then, however, a father will point out the hunger artist to his children, describing what he does and his history. The hunger artist doesn't dare ask the circus management to move him, though, as he fears being moved to an even more obscure location. The signs on his cage become dirty and illegible, and the board on which the days he has fasted are tallied is no longer updated. The hunger artist continues to fast, but no one realizes he has broken his record—not even him.

Finally the hunger artist's cage catches the attention of a supervisor, who believes it is empty and unused. Another worker finally remembers the hunger artist, and they find him underneath the straw. The supervisor asks him if he is still fasting, and the hunger artist asks him to forgive him "everything." The supervisor guesses the hunger artist is no longer of sound mind. The hunger artist reveals that he could not do anything else but fast because he never found a food that tasted good. Had he found such a food, he tells the supervisor, he would have eaten like everyone else. These are his last words. The supervisor has the workers bury the hunger artist and put a young panther in his cage, which draws large crowds.

Analysis

Religious Allegory and Parable

There are many elements of religious allegory and parable woven into "A Hunger Artist." The hunger artist himself demonstrates many elements of suffering and martyrdom that can be found in religious allegory—in this case, he suffers for the sake and purity of his art. The hunger artist seems to be searching for some kind of transcendence he believes fasting will bring him, but even until the moment of his death he remains unsatisfied. Franz Kafka uses the story to create a parable about the belief that suffering can bring about transcendence. For the hunger artist, it only brings a deepening sense of alienation. However, the hunger artist also reveals fasting is easier than anyone knows, and therefore Kafka turns the allegory on its head. There is a long-held stereotype of the "suffering artist," but here Kafka reveals the hunger artist is not suffering for the reasons his audience believes he is—he is suffering precisely because they don't understand him or his art. In this light, the hunger artist's fasting is just an outward demonstration of his internal suffering. And here Kafka raises an even bigger question: whether the hunger artist is the architect of his own suffering. Although parables often offer a clear-cut moral or lesson, Kafka chooses to leave the meaning of "A Hunger Artist" open to interpretation.

The fact that Kafka doesn't assign any names to the characters in the story also feels reminiscent of an allegory, in which characters often stand in as ideas or archetypes. The setting and era of the story are also ambiguous, which lends the story an aura of a parable or myth. Kafka aims to make the story timeless so that it feels universal and relatable when it comes to the philosophical questions of art and suffering. Kafka also uses the hunger artist as a kind of parable about the stereotype of the "starving artist," meaning an artist who eschews monetary gain and easy fame in order to remain true to their art. Yet Kafka offers no easy answers or morals in "A Hunger Artist," which ends with the hunger artist literally dying from starvation. Kafka instead invites the reader to consider how much free will goes into a person's decision to suffer for their art. In this light, the story can be considered a kind of parable for modern times in which capitalism and industrialization play a larger role in shaping the artists and audiences of the world.

Effects of Capitalism on Art

The enduring tone of "A Hunger Artist" is one of pessimism, particularly on the part of the hunger artist himself. Through this lens, Kafka comments on the modern human condition in which the hunger artist refuses to give in to capitalism. He denies himself not only food but also all possessions. Nor does he enjoy any human intimacy outside of conversation with spectators, which he engages in to ensure witnesses of his fasting. He chooses destitution, hunger, and his art above all else, though his choices do not bring him fulfillment first because of his profound alienation from the rest of the world that lives according to capitalist rules and structures and second because of its refusal to believe in or care about his art. It's significant that the story starts after the hunger artist's decline in popularity, as though Kafka intends to show the inevitable decline of capitalist enterprises. It also creates a tension between art for art's sake versus art for profit and entertainment.

At the beginning of the story, the hunger artist is bound to the 40-day fasting limit the impresario places on him. This limit isn't for health reasons but for moneymaking reasons, as the audience tends to lose interest in the fast after 40 days. When the hunger artist parts ways with the impresario and joins the circus, he is finally able to fast as long as he wants to. However, he is again confronted with the fact that his "art" cannot be fulfilled, as crowds merely rush past him on the way to see the animals at the circus. The hunger artist doesn't even read his contract with the circus, which seems to be a direct comment on the tendency of capitalism to attempt to control and monetize art.

Kafka offers the parable of the hunger artist as commentary on who and what define art in a capitalist society. The tension lies in the fact that the hunger artist requires an audience to perform, yet bristles against being sold as entertainment as well as the fact that no one seems to take his art seriously. However, the hunger artist also reveals a secret that brings the relationship with commodification into view—fasting is easy. His act relies on the illusion that it is difficult, so the audience feels they are "getting" something for their money: to see someone suffering through great endurance in a way they believe they never could. Since the audience equates fasting with suffering, the hunger artist hints that the suffering is easier than anyone realizes.

After his death, the hunger artist is replaced with a panther. The audience is struck by the panther's vitality, which appears to reside especially in his teeth. Their taste in art has swung from suffering to a celebration of health and power. However, it is clear they do not realize that the appetite of the panther, as it paces its cage and stares intently, includes them.

Artist and Audience

The audience is a largely nameless, faceless crowd, with an uneasy relationship to the hunger artist. Although the hunger artist needs the audience to witness his art, he abhors them for their lack of understanding. Since there is also constant suspicion the hunger artist is cheating, he resents them for not believing him—and is upset that even those watchers chosen to observe him turn their backs to him out of misguided compassion, because they think they are allowing him an opportunity to cheat. This tension between the hunger artist and his audience means they will never fully understand one another, since the hunger artist is the only person who can truly witness and understand his own performance. Kafka highlights the fleeting nature of satisfaction on the part of both the artist and the audience. The hunger artist is never truly satisfied because he feels the audience will never truly understand his art. Although the hunger artist's external suffering is on display as performance, his greatest suffering is internal and hidden from the audience. Part of the hunger artist's suffering is the knowledge that he needs the recognition of an audience who will never truly understand his art. This locks him into a kind of eternal private conflict of despising the very audience he craves. The great irony is that the hunger artist's performance is unrecognized by his audience as art. Kafka underscores the irony by showing how the audience itself gradually loses its appetite for watching the hunger artist, commenting on the fickle nature of an audience's capacity for attention and voyeurism. In this equation, the audience expects entertainment and shock value, while the hunger artist requires appreciation and understanding of his suffering as art. The two can never be reconciled.

The hunger artist's final fast that leads to his death is his longest and therefore probably the most meaningful to him, yet the irony is there is no audience to witness and validate it. Concealed in a pile of dirty straw in his neglected cage, he has been all but forgotten until a circus worker decides the cage should be put to use. Kafka again highlights how much the hunger artist relies on the audience to validate his art, yet ultimately he performs for himself alone. The fact that the hunger artist's death is neither acknowledged nor mourned by the audience shows just how disposable and forgettable he is in a world that prizes entertainment, and this makes his life's work seem futile. The fact that the hunger artist dies with no real audience demonstrates the possible meaninglessness of his art to anyone but himself.

A Hunger Artist Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 The hunger artist begins his career.

Rising Action

2 Audiences see the hunger artist.

3 The hunger artist ends his fast.

4 The hunger artist joins the circus.

Climax

5 The hunger artist dies.

Falling Action

6 The hunger artist is buried.

Resolution

7 The hunger artist is replaced by a panther.

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