Hunger Artist Analysis Essay

"A Hunger Artist" Franz Kafka

The following presents criticism on Kafka's short story "Ein Hungerkünstler" ("The Hunger Artist"; 1922). See also, The Metamorphosis Criticism and Franz Kafka Criticism.

"A Hunger Artist" is often considered one of Kafka's best works and 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 leopard. Spectators crowded about the leopard's cage.

Major Themes

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 leopard 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 leopard) and who is confronted with uncomprehending audiences. Others regard it as Kafka's ironic comment on artistic pretensions. Here the leopard signifies a positive life-affirming force opposing the hunger artist's impulse towards death.

Critical Reception

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.

The Separation of Artist from Society

In “A Hunger Artist,” the hunger artist’s troubled relationship with his spectators suggests that the artist exists apart from society and must therefore be misunderstood. In the hunger artist’s case, being an artist means cutting oneself off from the world, a conclusion reflected in the hunger artist’s conscious choice to sequester himself in a cage. This physical separation of hunger artist and spectator mirrors the spiritual separation of the individual artistic ego and public will. This gap in mindset leads to a critical gap in understanding. Set apart from others, only the hunger artist realizes the importance of his ambitions and accomplishments, and only he knows that he is not cheating. The further the hunger artist goes in pursuit of perfection, as he does in the circus, the further away he moves from the understanding of the people for whom he performs. The artist will always be separated from society because the qualities that distinguish him as an “artist” and are worth preserving are the ones that ensure he will never be understood.

The Harmful Effect of Pride

Although the hunger artist’s fierce pride in his art enables him to improve his fasting, it ultimately stops him from reaching his goals because it hurts his public appeal and connection to others. He looks on his emaciated frame and protruding ribcage with vanity, deeming them badges of honor, but his pitiful, grotesque body repulses the women who initially want to carry him from his cage at the end of his fast. In this case, his starved body—which is the manifestation of his pride—is the thing that ensures he will never be loved and admired by the public. Pride turns the hunger artist away from others and into himself, and he reinforces his isolation by imprisoning himself in a cage and meditating intensely. In the end, pride guarantees the hunger artist not fame and transcendence, but obscurity.

The Fruitlessness of Hunger

The hunger artist relishes in his hunger throughout the story, hoping that it will lead to spiritual satisfaction, but in the end, his fasting leaves him empty both physically and spiritually. The hunger artist refuses food, but his self-denial reveals his need for a different kind of nourishment: public recognition and artistic perfection. Hunger, for both physical and spiritual nourishment, is the subject of his performance. Beyond the performance, however, the hunger artist yearns only for what the physical world, including his audience, cannot give him. Fasting becomes the “easiest thing in the world” for the hunger artist, but what he struggles to do without is the spiritual nourishment that remains out of his reach.

While he performs with the impresario, the hunger artist never succeeds in fasting indefinitely, and this failure results in constant dissatisfaction. But the hunger artist fails to understand that the spiritual satisfaction he yearns for relies on the physical life he believes that he must give up. In renouncing his claims on life, the hunger artist makes himself incapable of achieving spiritual satisfaction. The panther that replaces him in the cage has a lust for life, satisfied “to the bursting point with everything that it needed.” Even though it is trapped in a cage, the panther seems to need nothing because, in essence, it lacks nothing. The hunger artist dies empty, having given up everything and still attaining none of his goals.

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