"A Hunger Artist" (Ein Hungerkünstler), also translated as "A Fasting Artist" and "A Starvation Artist", is a short story by Franz Kafka published in Die Neue Rundschau in 1922. The protagonist is an archetypical creation of Kafka, an individual marginalised and victimised by society at large.
The story opens with a description of an old-fashioned hunger or fasting-artist, who spends his time on public display, a caged spectacle starving for a cause or for art. He lives his life there, with ribs protruding, allowing young children to look, poke, and fear his awe, strength, and courage. However, there has been a large decline in these fasting-artists in recent decades. The fasting-artists used to persist in a cage lined with straw, watched over by volunteers selected by the public, typically local butchers. The artist disdains those 'watchers' who do not pay close attention to him and believe that they are giving him opportunity to sneak eatables from a secret cache. He sings to them to dispel any notions that he has any food, yet his fast-induced suspicions cause him to believe the inattentive watchers think he is, artfully, eating and singing simultaneously. The artist prefers those who watch him up close under the scrutiny of the torchlights provided to the volunteers, to whom he tells his nomadic life-story, and discusses his special ability of fasting and the ease with which he does it.
When the spectacle is brought to full effect, after forty days of fasting, the artist is brought to a ring in which crowds of people - especially women - pay to watch him. Eventually, two young women lead him out of his cage to a meager meal, followed by an orchestrated collapse by the artist's manager, an impresario, at which the designated ladies burst into tears, adding to the drama for the crowd's pleasure. However, why would he accept food after such a long fast when he can make it longer? Eventually, the manager spoonfeeds the fasting-artist, after he had reached his forty days, and the crowd cheers and disperses.In what seems like a flick of the switch, there is no longer a desire, no audience, for fast-staging in the towns and cities of Europe.
The artist leaves his manager and is downgraded to a traveling circus attraction, where he believes, in vain, that he can return to the limelight by fasting for an impossible length of time. The lack of interest in fasting prompts the circus manager to put his cage in a corner, where crowds pass by, only interested in seeing the menagerie beyond his cage. At the circus the hunger artist continues the fast far beyond his previous forty-day record, but no one pays him or his record any attention. Even he forgets how long he has fasted. Finally, the manager walks by the neglected cage and only sees a heap of dirty straw in a perfectly good cage; after a few moments, he and his men realize the hunger artist is still there. At the same time, the hunger artist is near death; he whispers his last words in the manager's ear and is unceremoniously buried, straw and all, by circus attendants. The cage is then occupied by an attractive and lively panther, who struts and cries out to the delight of onlookers, all of whom have forgotten the cage's previous occupant.
"A Hunger Artist" is often considered one of Kafka's best works. It is one of the most powerful and perfectly crafted short stories ever written. It was first published in the periodical Die Neue Rundschau in 1922 and subsequently included as the title piece in the short story collection that was the last book published by Kafka during his lifetime. "A Hunger Artist" explores the familiar Kafka themes of death, art, isolation, asceticism, spiritual poverty, futility, personal failure, and the corruption of human relationships. Some critics have argued that it is one of Kafka's most autobiographical works, viewing the story as a depiction of the isolation and alienation of the modern artist, a condition keenly felt by Kafka himself.
Plot and Major Characters
"A Hunger Artist" is told retrospectively, looking several decades back from "today," to a time when interest in the spectacle of a professional hunger artist—a person with the ability to fast for many days—was intense. It then depicts the waning of interest in such displays. The story begins with a general description of "the hunger artist" as a type of performer, and then almost imperceptibly narrows in on a single practitioner of the "art"—the protagonist. The hunger artist performed in a cage around which curious spectators crowded. He was attended by teams of watchers—usually three butchers—who ensured that he was not eating in secret. Despite such precautions, many—including some of the watchers themselves—were convinced that the hunger artist cheated. Such suspicions annoyed the hunger artist, as did the forty-day limit imposed on his fasting by his promoter, or "impresario." The impresario insisted that after forty days public sympathy for the hunger artist inevitably declined. The hunger artist, however, found the time limit irksome and arbitrary, as it prevented him from bettering his own record, from fasting indefinitely. At the end of a fast the hunger artist, amid highly theatrical fanfare, would be carried from his cage and made to eat, both of which acts he always resented.
These performances, followed by intervals of recuperation, were repeated for many years. Despite his fame, the hunger artist felt dissatisfied and misunderstood. If a spectator, observing his apparent melancholy, tried to console him, he would erupt in fury, shaking the bars of his cage. The impresario would punish such outbursts by apologizing to the audience, pointing out that irritability was a consequence of fasting. He would then mention the hunger artist's boast that he could fast much longer than he was doing, but would show photographs of the hunger artist near death at the end of a previous fast. In this way he suggested that the hunger artist's sadness was caused by fasting, when, in the hunger artist's view, he was depressed because he was not allowed to fast more. The impresario's "perversion of the truth" further exasperated the hunger artist.
Seemingly overnight, popular tastes changed and public fasting went out of fashion. The hunger artist broke his ties with the impresario and hired himself to a circus, where he hoped to perform truly prodigious feats of fasting. No longer a main attraction, he was given a cage on the outskirts of the circus, near the animal cages. Although the site was readily accessible, and crowds thronged past on their way to see the animals, any spectators who stopped to see him created an obstruction in the flow of people on their way to the animals. At first the hunger artist looked forward to the passing of the crowds, but in time he grew irritated by the noise and disruption caused by the people, and the stench, the roaring, and the feeding of the animals depressed him. Eventually, the hunger artist was completely ignored. No one, not even the artist himself, counted the days of his fast. One day an overseer noticed the hunger artist's cage with its dirty straw. He wondered why the cage was unused; when he and the attendants inspected it, however, they found the hunger artist near death. Before he died he asked forgiveness and confessed that he should not be admired, since the reason he fasted was simply that he could not find food to his liking. The hunger artist was buried with the straw of his cage and replaced by a panther. Spectators crowded about the panther's cage because the panther took so much joy in life, unlike the hunger artist. The story also mentions that the panther was always brought the food he liked, a hint to the readers that can be interpreted in many ways.
There is a sharp division among critical interpretations of "A Hunger Artist." Most commentators concur that the story is an allegory, but they disagree as to what is represented. Some critics, pointing to the hunger artist's asceticism, regard him as a saintly or even Christ-like figure. In support of this view they emphasize the unworldliness of the protagonist, the priest-like quality of the watchers, and the traditional religious significance of the forty-day period. Other critics insist that "A Hunger Artist" is an allegory of the misunderstood artist, whose vision of transcendence and artistic excellence is rejected or ignored by the public. This interpretation is sometimes joined with a reading of the story as autobiographical. According to this view, this story, written near the end of Kafka's life, links the hunger artist with the author as an alienated artist who is dying. Whether the protagonist's striving is seen as spiritual or artistic, the panther is regarded as the hunger artist's antithesis: satisfied and contented, the animal's corporeality stands in marked contrast to the hunger artist's ethereality. A final interpretive division surrounds the issue of whether "A Hunger Artist" is meant to be read ironically. Some critics consider the story a sympathetic depiction of a misunderstood artist who seeks to rise above the merely animal parts of human nature (represented by the panther) and who is confronted with uncomprehending audiences. Others regard it as Kafka's ironic comment on artistic pretensions. Here the panther signifies a positive life-affirming force opposing the hunger artist's impulse towards death. The hunger artist comes to symbolize a joy deprived man who shows no exuberance and the jaguar who replaces him obviously is meant to show a sharp contrast of the two.
Both within and apart from the debates surrounding the thematic and allegorical significance of "A Hunger Artist," critics have explored a number of other issues. Heinz Pollitzer has observed that in order to achieve fulfillment in his art the hunger artist must die, and he links this to an overall "paradox of existence." Similarly, Claude-Edmonde Magny has seen in the hunger artist's isolation a "fundamental solitude" that is part of the human condition. Forrest L. Ingram has explored the theme of anxiety in "A Hunger Artist," finding several levels of tension in the story, and Patrick Mahony has interpreted the work from a psychoanalytic perspective. Paulo Medeiros has pointed out that the hunger artist displays many of the symptoms of anorexia. A number of critics have examined "A Hunger Artist" in the context of Kafka's other works, and some have detected affinities to literature by other authors, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Baudelaire, and others. Commentators have been nearly unanimous in their praise of the organization and structure of "A Hunger Artist" and have extolled Kafka's brilliant fusion of fantastic and realistic elements in this work.
- A comics adaptation of the story, illustrated by Peter Kuper, is included in Give It Up!.
- A short American film based on the story was made in 2002.
- Introducing Kafka, a graphic novel that examined Kafka's life and work, included a retelling of "A Hunger Artist". The story was written by David Zane Mairowitz and illustrated by R. Crumb.
- The Hunger Artists Theatre Company staged an adaptation of the story entitled "The Pledge Drive: Ruminations On The Hunger Artist", written by Jason Lindner. In the play, The Hunger Artist was the host of a pledge drive in which the guests were other people who were bound by their identities.
- Kafka, Franz (1996). The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, trans. Donna Freed. New York: Barnes & Noble. ISBN 1-56619-969-7.