A Hunger Artist
(Ein Hungerkünstler)
By Franz Kafka (1883-1924)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Plot Summary
What Does the Story Mean?
Major Themes
Other Themes
Point of View
Kafka's Dark Humor
Kafka and Expressionism
Questions, Essay Topics
Complete Free Text

Type of Work and Year of Publication

......."A 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.


.......The action takes place in the early twentieth century in unidentified locales in Europe. 


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.
Spectators: Observers of a hunger artist's "performance."
Butchers: Spectators 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 his fast.
Impresario: Business manager of the protagonist.
Doctors: Physicians 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.
Circus Overseer: Person who greets the protagonist when he completes his marathon fast in front of a circus tent.
Circus Attendants: Persons who assist the overseer.

Narration: Narrowing the Focus

.......The narration begins by focusing on the universal, then shifts to the particular—that is, it first focuses on hunger artists in general, then zooms down to a single hunger artist in particular..

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2009

.......People 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 “with his ribs sticking out so prominently,” 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.
.......Besides 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.
.......However, 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. 
.......A 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.
.......The 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—perhaps to set an all-time record. However, the manager gets him to take a few morsels of the food, which nauseates him. 
.......Time 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. 
.......Meanwhile, 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.
.......He 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—on and on—which is what he always wanted to do. However, no one keeps track of the days. Occasionally, a passerby accuses him of cheating.
.......After 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. 
.......“I only wanted you to admire my fasting,” the hunger artist tells him.
.......“We do admire it,” the man says.
.......“But you shouldn't admire it,” the artist says.
.......“Well then we don't admire it, but why shouldn't we admire it.”
.......“Because I have to fast,” says the hunger artist. “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.”
.......A moment later, he dies. To the end, he was proud that he never gave up his fast.
.......The 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 Themes

As an allegory, "The Hunger Artist" is open to several interpretations. Here are three:

Interpretation 1
Theme: Individuality and Alienation

.......The 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—like the hunger artist—to demonstrate why he is who he is. 

Interpretation 2
Theme: Quest for Fulfillment

.......The hunger artist seeks fulfillment through marathon fasting exhibitions that win him public admiration. As the narration points out, he lives “in visible glory, honored by the world.” However, despite the acclaim he receives, he becomes “troubled in spirit” and reacts “with an outburst of fury” if an observer suggests that fasting causes his melancholy. The narrator asks, “What comfort could he possibly need? What more could he possibly wish for?” 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?
.......Though 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: “I couldn’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.” 
.......Support 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—like the fulfillment that the hunger artist seeks—always seemed out of Kafka's reach. Brod has written, “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.” That Kafka accepted the existence of what Brodsky terms the “Indestructible” (meaning an absolute power) “was for Kafka an immediate certainty,” Brodsky says. 

Interpretation 3
Theme: Struggle for Recognition

.......The 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. 
.......When 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. . . .” 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,

Melville's lyricism, 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. . . .
.......In 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—including anxiety and depression—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—including his great novel The Trial—was published after his death in 1924. Today, he ranks as one the most important writers of the twentieth century. 

Other Themes

Perverse Curiosity: 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. 
Ephemeral Glory: For a time, the hunger artist lives “in visible glory, honored by the world,” 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 itself,
Till by broad spreading it disperse to naught. (lines 133-135)
Point of View

.......Kafka 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. 

Nothing annoyed 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. 

Kafka's Dark Humor

.......Kafka aficionados find a bounty of qualities to admire in his work, not the least of which is his ability to be darkly humorous. In “The Hunger Artist,” 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. 
.......Obviously, 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—such as W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, and Peter Sellers—Kafka well knew that humor wears a dark suit and a somber face and walks with a funereal bearing.

Climax and Denouement

.......The 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—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 fasting.
Cage: Alienation 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.
Clock: Indication that nothing lasts forever. The hunger artist is a popular attraction for a while, but people eventually tire of him. 
Hunger: Rejection 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 and now. 

Kafka and Expressionism

.......Franz 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’s feelings about a subject (or the writer’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 are the real world. Besides Kafka, writers who used expressionist techniques included James Joyce and Eugene O’Neill

Biographical Information
.......Franz 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 married. 
.......At the end of his life, Kafka was almost completely isolated–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 here.


Study Questions and Essay Topics

  • 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 endurance records. 
  • 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?.