Hunger Artist" is a short story presented as an allegory. An allegory is
a tale with a hidden meaning (or several hidden meanings). The story first
appeared in 1922 in Die neue Rundschau (The New Review),
a monthly journal published in Berlin and Leipzig, Germany.
action takes place in the early twentieth century in unidentified locales
Hunger Artists: Persons
who fast while sitting in a cage in an auditorium or another public place.
They regard fasting as an art.
A Particular Hunger Artist:
Protagonist. He earns fame and glory but is dissatisfied because his manager
limits his fasting to forty days.
Observers of a hunger artist's "performance."
who closely watch a hunger artist to make sure he does not sneak food.
Escort Ladies: Young
women who escort a hunger artist to a table set with food after he completes
manager of the protagonist.
who examine a hunger artist at the end of his fast.
Military Band: Musicians
who play at the triumphal ending of a hunger artist's fast.
Person who greets the protagonist when he completes his marathon fast in
front of a circus tent.
Persons who assist the overseer.
Narrowing the Focus
narration begins by focusing on the universal, then shifts to the particular~ez_mdash~that
is, it first focuses on hunger artists in general, then zooms down to a
single hunger artist in particular..
are not as interested as they once were in watching the performance of
a hunger artist. Time was when folks would observe such an artist from
morning to night as he sat in his cage in black tights. Children were especially
fascinated with the sight of a person ~ez_ldquo~with his ribs sticking out so prominently,~ez_rdquo~
the narrator says. Sometimes a hunger artist would reach a thin arm through
the bars so a spectator could feel it. At other times he ignored everyone
and everything, including the clock inside his cage.
casual onlookers there were also relays of permanent watchers selected
by the public, usually butchers, strangely enough. It was their task to
watch the hunger artist day and night, three of them at a time, in case
he should have some secret recourse to nourishment.
no hunger artist would think of sneaking food. He had too much pride in
his craft to do that. It was not uncommon for a hunger artist to stay up
all night talking with spectators to keep them awake to witness his fast.
hunger artist knows, however, that it is easy to fast. He freely acknowledges
this fact. But people tend not to believe him. A few of them think he is
just being modest. But most of them think he is just trying to get publicity
or has found a way to cheat.
manager of one particular hunger artist does not allow his client to fast
more than forty days. The reason is that the public begins to lose interest
after the fortieth day. When the hunger artist ends his fast and the cage
opens, two physicians examine him and announce their findings, a band plays,
and the hunger artist's manager raises his arms over his emaciated client
as if to call down upon him the praise of heaven. Then two young women
escort the artist to a table set with food. But the artist, who is barely
able to walk, desires to go on fasting~ez_mdash~perhaps to set an all-time record.
However, the manager gets him to take a few morsels of the food, which
passes. The hunger artist continues to ply his trade, taking time off now
and then to regain his strength. Despite the worldwide acclaim he receives,
he becomes depressed. If a well-meaning person suggests that fasting is
the cause, he sometimes reacts angrily, shaking the bars of the cage. Such
displays delight his manager, who tells onlookers that lack of food causes
him to erupt but adds that the artist could fast well beyond forty days
if he wanted to. He then sells pictures of the artist in a deathlike state
on the fortieth day of previous fasts.
public interest in the feats of the hunger artist begin to decline all
across Europe. Although fasting is likely to catch on again at some future
time, what is the artist to do in the interim? He certainly does not want
to degrade himself by performing in a booth at village fairs. Taking up
another profession is out of the question. He is too old for that. In addition,
he likes fasting too much to give it up.
decides to join a circus, which always has big crowds. His plan is to set
a fasting record while sitting in a cage outside the big top, near the
animal cages. Unfortunately, in their excitement to see the animals, the
crowds become pushy, and it impossible for the few who want to observe
the hunger artist to stand for more than a moment or two in front of his
cage. So interest in his performance continues to wane. Besides, people
no longer understand what hunger art is all about. Nevertheless, the artist
continues to fast~ez_mdash~on and on~ez_mdash~which is what he always wanted to do. However,
no one keeps track of the days. Occasionally, a passerby accuses him of
many more days, a circus overseer comes by and, noticing that the cage
appears empty, asks his attendants why a perfectly good cage should be
left standing unused with dirty straw inside it. One of the attendants
remembers that there was once a hunger artist in the cage. After he and
fellow attendants open the cage, they poke around with sticks and find
the hunger artist in the straw. The overseer is surprised that the hunger
artist has been performing for so long a time.
only wanted you to admire my fasting,~ez_rdquo~ the hunger artist tells him.
do admire it,~ez_rdquo~ the man says.
you shouldn't admire it,~ez_rdquo~ the artist says.
then we don't admire it, but why shouldn't we admire it.~ez_rdquo~
I have to fast,~ez_rdquo~ says the hunger artist. ~ez_ldquo~I can't help it . . . because
I couldn't find the food that I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I
should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.~ez_rdquo~
moment later, he dies. To the end, he was proud that he never gave up his
circus people bury the hunger artist and replace him with a panther. Everybody
is now happy to see the cage occupied by an animated, leaping creature.
It devours the food brought to him and doesn't seem to care that it is
inside a cage. It acts as if it is free. People crowd around to watch him.
. Interpretation and Major
As an allegory, "The Hunger
Artist" is open to several interpretations. Here are three:
Interpretation 1 Theme: Individuality
hunger artist represents anyone markedly different from others in the way
he or she lives, works, dresses, or thinks. Such a person may be a pacifist,
a tightrope walker, an antivivisectionist, a member of the Goth subculture,
or a Carthusian monk. Or he may be a vegetarian in a family of meat eaters,
an introvert in a family of extroverts, a Jew in a community of Christians,
or a capitalist in a community of communists. This person may feel misunderstood
and isolated, like the hunger artist in the cage. And he may go to the
extreme~ez_mdash~like the hunger artist~ez_mdash~to demonstrate why he is who he is.
Interpretation 2 Theme: Quest for Fulfillment
hunger artist seeks fulfillment through marathon fasting exhibitions that
win him public admiration. As the narration points out, he lives ~ez_ldquo~in visible
glory, honored by the world.~ez_rdquo~ However, despite the acclaim he receives,
he becomes ~ez_ldquo~troubled in spirit~ez_rdquo~ and reacts ~ez_ldquo~with an outburst of fury~ez_rdquo~ if
an observer suggests that fasting causes his melancholy. The narrator asks,
~ez_ldquo~What comfort could he possibly need? What more could he possibly wish
for?~ez_rdquo~ Is it the trust of the people, so that they no longer suspect him
of cheating? Is it self-respect? He seems to lack it because he knows his
accomplishments are less than heroic, given his aversion to food. What
exactly is it that he requires to achieve complete contentment and fulfillment?
he apparently does not realize it, what he seeks is divine recognition.
Only that which is absolute and supreme can satisfy the deepest longings
of the human soul, the deepest hunger. And the hunger artist is indeed
hungry. His problem is that he has not found the right nourishment, God,
to satisfy this hunger. Before he dies, the hunger artist tells the circus
overseer: ~ez_ldquo~I couldn~ez_rsquo~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.~ez_rdquo~
for this interpretation of the story appears in Franz Kafka, a Biography,
by Max Brod (1884-1968), a Czech-born writer and composer who was one of
Kafka's closest and most trusted friends. Although Kafka was ambiguous
in his positions on religion and God, Brod maintains that Kafka struggled
mightily to find God, who~ez_mdash~like the fulfillment that the hunger artist seeks~ez_mdash~always
seemed out of Kafka's reach. Brod has written, ~ez_ldquo~We must not forget Kafka's
many private, accidental failings and sufferings . . . ; they all condition
the feeling of God's 'farness' which expresses itself so insistently in
his works.~ez_rdquo~ That Kafka accepted the existence of what Brodsky terms the
~ez_ldquo~Indestructible~ez_rdquo~ (meaning an absolute power) ~ez_ldquo~was for Kafka an immediate
certainty,~ez_rdquo~ Brodsky says.
Interpretation 3 Theme: Struggle for Recognition
protagonist represents writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, and other
craftsmen who struggle to gain recognition and support. They are the proverbial
starving artists who live in creaky garrets and work by candlelight.
such a person completes a masterpiece and presents it to the public, critics
not infrequently misunderstand it and condemn it. Or they ignore it altogether.
For example, when Herman Melville (1819-1891) published Moby
Dick in 1851, critics generally did not recognize the novel as
an extraordinary accomplishment. In fact, Henry F. Chorley, of the London
Atheneum, wrote, "This is an ill-compounded mixture of romance and
matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously
visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition.
The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad)
English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed.
. . .~ez_rdquo~ However, in the twentieth century, critics began hailing Moby
Dick as one of the greatest novels in the English language. Nobel Prize
winner Albert Camus (1913-1960) wrote,
so redolent of Shakespeare's, thrives on the four elements. He blends Scripture
and the sea, the music of the waves and the heavenly bodies, the poetry
of the everyday and a grandeur of Atlantic proportions. He is inexhaustible,
like the winds that blow for thousands of miles across empty oceans and
that, when they reach the coast, still have strength enough to flatten
whole village. . . .
March 1875, on the morning after Georges Bizet (1838-1875) debuted his
opera Carmen at a dress rehearsal in Paris, a newspaper printed
this notice: "Carmen presents most unsavory characters, in such bad taste
that the work might very well be ill-advised." Bizet died three months
later. Today Carmen ranks on almost every opera lover's list as
one of the top five greatest operas ever composed. Audiences never seem
to tire of it. .......Kafka
himself never earned wide acclaim during his lifetime. .......Although
he developed an interest in writing in his school days, neither his mother
nor his father encouraged him in his literary pursuits, which they considered
impractical, dreamy. After graduating from Charles University in Prague,
he accepted a job in 1907 with the Prague office of an Italian insurance
company, working long hours at night that left him almost no time to write.
Nine months later, he quit that job and took another with shorter hours
at the Worker's Accident Insurance Institute of the Kingdom of Bohemia.
Although this job allowed him time to write, he was never able to become
a full-time writer. Meantime, he suffered from psychological problems~ez_mdash~including
anxiety and depression~ez_mdash~apparently stemming in large part from the emotional
abuse he received from his domineering father when he was growing up.
And, in 1917, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Most of his work~ez_mdash~including
his great novel The Trial~ez_mdash~was published
after his death in 1924. Today, he ranks as one the most important writers
of the twentieth century.
The crowds that attend the hunger artist's performance exhibit the same
kind of perverse curiosity of people drawn to the scene of a house fire
or an auto accident or to a freak show at a carnival or circus.
For a time, the hunger artist lives ~ez_ldquo~in visible glory, honored by the world,~ez_rdquo~
the narrator says. And then one day the crowds begin to tire of his exhibitions
because, as Shakespeare wrote in the second scene of Act 1 of Henry
VI Part I:
Glory is like a
circle in the water,
Which never ceaseth to enlarge
Till by broad spreading
it disperse to naught. (lines 133-135)
tells the story in omniscient third-person point of view, enabling the
narrator to reveal the thoughts of the characters, as in the following
two passages. The first presents the thoughts of the hunger artist; the
second, the thoughts of the impresario.
the artist more than these watchers; they made him miserable; they made
his fast seem unendurable; sometimes he mastered his feebleness sufficiently
to sing during their watch for as long as he could keep going, to show
them how unjust their suspicions were.
Yet the impresario had a
way of punishing these outbreaks which he rather enjoyed putting into operation.
aficionados find a bounty of qualities to admire in his work, not the least
of which is his ability to be darkly humorous. In ~ez_ldquo~The Hunger Artist,~ez_rdquo~
he is in top form in this regard. Here is the story of a man who displays
his starving body in a cage while butchers look on to make sure that he
does not sneak food. Here is the story of a man who seeks fulfillment through
emptiness. Here is the story of a man who becomes so thin that people have
to poke around in the straw pile in his cage to find him.
irony, paradox, and hyperbole all support the humor. Just as important
is the deadly serious manner in which Kafka presents the humor. Like the
greatest comedians~ez_mdash~such as W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, and Peter Sellers~ez_mdash~Kafka
well knew that humor wears a dark suit and a somber face and walks with
a funereal bearing.
climax occurs when the hunger artist decides to fast indefinitely in an
effort to achieve the complete fulfillment that he has been vainly seeking
and at the same time to recapture and reanimate public interest in his
artistry. The denouement chronicles the failure of his success~ez_mdash~that
is, although he succeeds in going well beyond the previous forty-day fasting
limit, he ultimately fails to revive public interest and achieve fulfillment.
Hunger artist: (1)
Misunderstood artist. (2) Christlike figure. Like Christ, the artist fasts
for forty days. People eventually reject the artist, just as people today
reject Christ in favor of materialism. (3) Israelites, who spent forty
years in the desert before moving on to the Promised Land. The hunger artist
seeks fulfillment (the Promised Land) through
from the mainstream of society. Artists often feel alienated because they
believe society does not understand their work. People who are markedly
different from others in their thinking or their lifestyle also feel alienated.
It is as if society has confined them to a cage.
that nothing lasts forever. The hunger artist is a popular attraction for
a while, but people eventually tire of him.
of earthly nourishment; only divine nourishment can satisfy.
Panther: If one interprets
the hunger artist as a Christlike figure, he or she may also interpret
the panther as materialism (or the devil). After rejecting the hunger artist
(spirituality), they focus on the healthy, leaping panther of the here
Kafka is frequently identified with early twentieth Century expressionism.
In literature, expressionism is a movement or writing technique in which
a writer depicts a character~ez_rsquo~s feelings about a subject (or the writer~ez_rsquo~s
own feelings about it) rather than the objective, surface reality of the
subject. A writer, in effect, presents his interpretation of what he sees.
Often, the depiction is a grotesque distortion or phantasmagoric representation
of reality. However, there is logic to this approach for these reasons:
(1) Not everybody perceives the world in the same way. What one person
may see as beautiful or good another person may see as ugly or bad. Sometimes
a writer or his character suffers from a mental debility, such as depression
or paranoia, which alters his perception of reality. Expressionism enables
the writer to present this altered perception. Expressionist writers often
present the real world as bizarre, fantastic, and nightmarish because that
is how they, or the characters in their works, see the world. Their distortions
the real world. Besides Kafka, writers who used expressionist techniques
included James Joyce and Eugene
Kafka was well primed to write a novel about an isolated individual. His
father despised him, he never married, and he was a Jew at a time when
anti-Semitism was gaining sway again in Europe. Kafka was born on July
3, 1883, in Prague (now part of the Czech Republic but then part of Austria-Hungry).
When he was an adolescent, he was a good student, but he disliked the traditional,
hidebound, authoritarian approach to education at his school, the Altstädter
Staatsgymnasium. Although he later earned a law degree at the University
of Prague, he did not practice law but instead worked in Prague for an
insurance company and then for an insurance institute. He found insurance
work tedious. Nevertheless, he did his job well, earning the respect of
colleagues, and remained an office worker until 1923, when he moved to
Berlin to pursue writing. By then, however, he was suffering from tuberculosis
and died the following year. Throughout his life, he was never close to
his parents, Hermann Kafka and Julie Löwy Kafka. His father, a successful
merchant, was a tyrant who bullied Franz psychologically. Although Kafka
had relationships with several women, one to whom he was engaged, he never
the end of his life, Kafka was almost completely isolated~ez_ndash~from his family,
from the God that he sought, from a regular job and the companionship of
co-workers, from the wife that he never had, from anti-Semitic Germans
whose language he wrote in. He did have one close friend, however: Max
Brod, an essay writer, drama critic, and novelist who published Kafka's
works after he died even though Kafka had told him to destroy all his manuscripts.
Among Franz Kafka's other works are
Meditation (1913), The Judgment
(1912), "Metamorphosis" (1915), In the Penal Colony (1919), The
Castle (1926), and Amerika (1927). He died on June 3, 1924,
at Kierling, Austria. For a more detailed biography of Franz Kafka, click
. Study Questions and Essay
The hunger artist complains
that people do not understand his art. Are there modern paintings, sculptures,
and poems that you do not understand? Do you usually make an effort to
understand them? Or do you usually dismiss them as rubbish?
When an artist creates his works,
what is his chief goal? To interpret reality in a new and different way
that enlightens people? To gain fame? To make money?
Write an essay that compares
and contrasts the hunger artist with modern athletes who attempt to set
Why were butchers chosen to
monitor the hunger artist?
Write an essay explaining the
extent to which "A Hunger Artist" reflects themes in Kafka's own life.
This study guide presents three
interpretations of Kafka's story? Can you think of others?.