A Hunger Artist | Study Guide

Franz Kafka

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A Hunger Artist | Themes


Alienation and Futility

The hunger artist feels alienated from everyone due to the nature of his art. He keeps himself in a cage on display, and therefore becomes a thing to watch rather than a person with whom to have a relationship. His alienation from his audience is largely what causes his suffering, rather than the act of fasting itself. He feels deeply misunderstood, yet does not seem to recognize he is both causing and participating in his own alienation by continuing his performance. In this way, his art is meaningful only to himself, as he understands it while his audience cannot. They can only be spectators, not even fully witnesses, since they must take the hunger artist's and observers' words that he is not cheating. In this way, only the hunger artist himself can be the true witness and judge of his own performance. The hunger artist's understanding of this contradiction leads to his profound sense of alienation and futility, yet he cannot conceive of giving up. Kafka emphasizes that the hunger artist's alienation is largely by his own design, because he began fasting not for artistic purposes but because he couldn't find anything he liked to eat. Art is not a choice for him; it is a way of life.

Martyrdom and Pride

The hunger artist sees himself as a martyr and takes great pride in this fact. In portraying him as a martyr, Franz Kafka alludes to the history of religious martyrdom, particularly that of Jesus Christ. Although the impresario limits the hunger artist's fast to 40 days because he believes that is the limit of the audience's attention span, Kafka's own readers would recognize the irony of the biblical allusion. In the Old Testament, Moses spends 40 days and 40 nights fasting on Mount Sinai; in the New Testament, Jesus Christ fasts in the wilderness for 40 days. This discipline of fasting has become the Christian holiday of Lent, in which practitioners practice abstention (often from some sort of food or drink) for 40 days as a penance or compensation for offenses. Yet Kafka makes a careful distinction between the martyrdom of Jesus Christ and the hunger artist. Jesus Christ claimed to be a martyr for people's sins, while the hunger artist believes people are the cause of his private suffering. The hunger artist claims that rather than him deceiving the world about his performance, he feels "the world was cheating him of his reward" by not acknowledging his artistic sacrifice. The narrator even refers to the hunger artist as an "unfortunate martyr," foreshadowing the fact that the hunger artist will die for his art just as all martyrs die for their cause. Yet the narrator also states the hunger artist is a martyr in "a completely different sense," meaning he is the cause of his own suffering. This calls into question the definition of a martyr, and whether the hunger artist can truly be considered one. Although Kafka aligns the hunger artist's suffering with that of Jesus Christ, the hunger artist never finds redemption in his martyrdom. Even if the hunger artist is intended to be a Christlike figure, Kafka demonstrates that the audience he contends with is in a different era than that of Jesus Christ's believers, and so the hunger artist is doomed to be forgotten for his suffering.

Suffering and Satisfaction

The hunger artist is trapped in a cycle of seemingly never-ending suffering, both of his own will and due to feeling misunderstood by his audience. A large part of the hunger artist's performance is the very concept of suffering, given that he is denying himself food. Yet he reveals that fasting is easy, which makes it clear his suffering comes not from the act itself but from his audience not understanding his art. In this view, it is not the physical aspect of fasting that causes him suffering, but the misunderstanding of the audience. Kafka also addresses the notion of why watching someone suffer would have voyeuristic appeal to an audience. Though they may be impressed by his endurance, they also believe they are watching someone suffer from starvation. This is an upsetting notion, as evidenced by the young woman who bursts into tears after touching the hunger artist as well as by the people who lose interest after 40 days.

The audience believes they are "satisfied" after the hunger artist's fast is ended, believing they have witnessed his endurance. Yet the hunger artist can never truly be satisfied with his performance because he doesn't believe the audience truly understands it. They don't understand that fasting is easy, and they don't understand that he believes he could continue doing it after 40 days. Even his fasting never brings him satisfaction, because he believes he can transcend his previous attempts. In this way hunger and dissatisfaction are linked to each other, representing the way in which the hunger artist remains hungry for food and understanding but is dissatisfied by both. The hunger artist wonders "if he kept going and kept fasting longer, why would they not tolerate it?" This is telling because it shows the hunger artist equates the recognition of his suffering with a sense of satisfaction.

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