Kafka’s 1922 A Hunger Artist parabola of the condition of the artist is a story about a world-famous artist renowned for his long periods of fasting, who puts his art on display in an unspecified place and time. The main character, the hunger artist, finds himself dissatisfied even at the peak of his artistic career, frustrated by his audience’s inability to appreciate his work as a true art form, and his manager’s preoccupation with the commercial aspects of his performance.
Although initially very popular with audiences everywhere, we are informed from the beginning that with the passing of time, audiences become disenchanted with the hunger artist’s circus act, resulting in a significant decrease in its popularity of. The main character, the hunger artist, is the typical protagonist of Kafka’s work: misunderstood, alienated, and victimized. In fact, this kind of character has its roots in Kafka’s real life persona. Similarly to his character living in a cage, Kafka always lived in small crowded housing, dealing with feelings of confinement and isolation. Also, Kafka felt unappreciated by society, which resulted in very low self-esteem and a distorted vision of self-value. This is why he requested that his unpublished work be burned upon his death.
Although the story is told from the point of view of the main character, “the hunger artists”, the “record hunger artist of all time”, the narrator’s voice is abstract and does not belong to the character himself. The hunger artist’s profession was to travel the world sharing his gift with the public through performances which consisted of extended periods of time of fasting, which would last up to 40 days. This was considered a form of entertaining, which would gather large crowds of enthusiastic viewers, stunned children, skeptics irrespective of where the show took place. This is how the world-famous performer, the hunger artist, becomes a world-known figure in mass entertainment.
Despite his great success, the hunger artist never feels truly appreciated or understood by his audience, who look upon his art as merely a form of entertainment. This is why he becomes haunted by feelings of isolation and alienation; he fails to obtain recognition from his audience, and at the same time, is appreciated for all the wrong reasons. People focus their attention on his frightening physical aspect, or on making sure that he does not cheat, and feed himself during the night or when they are not paying attention. His performance is neither recognized nor appreciated as an art form, thus the artist can never be fulfilled.
Nevertheless, it is crucial to notice that this state is a sine-qua-non condition of the hunger artist’s artistic demonstration. His choice to perform in a cage is relevant to understanding his feelings: isolation is, to great extent, self-imposed. The cage is the barrier the hunger artist needs to separate himself from his audience, i.e. the masses. It is a tool of individualization, a process that every artist seeks during his lifetime, in order for his work to stand out. Kafka’s choice of the cage is not accidental; on the contrary, it is highly relevant for the entire body of his work. The “cage” of the hunger artist has two functions, i.e. a refuge from the outside world, and a barrier separating the artist from the rest of humanity, represented by his audience.
To the hunger artist, no sacrifice is too big, not even having to spend most of his life inside a small cage, covered with straws. His frustration is enhanced by the public’s mistrust and suspicion, especially by the attempts of some to provide him with the opportunity to sneak food inside his cage as means of proving their own theories. The hunger artist does not even consider this option because he is faithful to his art. The suspicion of the audience symbolizes the historical mistrust of people in the purity of art, which requires a deeper understanding that the general public does not always possess.
Nonetheless, the artist is dependent upon the public’s reaction, in the sense that their lack of understanding of his art is actually the element which perpetuates it. The hunger artist enters a vicious circle because of his continuous need for validation from his audience. The pain and suffering caused by the absence of this validation is precisely what generated more pain, and less understanding from his public, which in turn, give rise to more profound suffering from the artist.
Days passed, and the crowds stop gathering to watch the fasting-artist. The admiration for his work is diminishing up to the point where it ceases completely, leaving the cage looking empty, and the circus overseers wondering what happened. One day, they approach the cage and start poking the straw only to discover the artist barely alive. This is the point where the perspective of the narration is broadened thanks to the dialogue between the artist and the circus overseer. The latter asks the hunger artist if he is still fasting. The artist asks the overseer to come closer and answers that his only option is to fast, that he has no other choice; that he would have eaten like his audience, and the rest of the people if he had found any food to his liking.
These are the final words of the hunger artist. He dies and is buried by the circus. His cage is removed, and a young panther is placed in it, to the delight of the public. The public forgets all about the hunger artist and immediately embraces a new circus act. The act of consuming the performance of the hunger artist is characteristic to any audience: once the entertainment is over, the audience moves on the next act on display.
The panther is a symbol of the lust for life. It also carries a reversed connotation than the hunger artist, in the sense that unlike the latter whose act consists of putting his suffering on display, the panther is admired due to its ability to inflict pain and suffering.
His inability to fit in society gives birth to his art. Surprisingly, is it not his desire to be different that leads him to such an art form, but the other way around. Although the story is absurd, the sequence of events makes it believable, and serves a higher purpose: it aims to show that the motif of the hunger is, in fact, the artist’s lifelong feeling of isolation and dissatisfaction. Along with these feelings, the hunger artist also needs to maintain a feeling of superiority in relation to the masses that come to watch his performance. The best example is his willingness to feed the butchers who come to guard him during the night and to make sure he does not eat anything. He takes great pleasure in watching them gorge themselves on a large meal that he pays for, while he silently fasts.
The butchers are, in fact, a double symbol: the gluttonous butchers can represent the capitalist society, but also a reference to the Jewish prohibition of eating pork and their stringent method of handling and preparing meat. From his point of view, the butchers are representatives of the weak masses that lack in will and determination, whereas he represents the artist endowed with concentration and the ability to control himself. This feeling of superiority ensures that his art is not criticized by his audience since they cannot understand it. Nevertheless, this is also the reason for his eternal dissatisfaction, as his desire is to be validated as an artist, not merely an entertainer, but also to remain misunderstood so he can maintain his superiority and be exempted from criticism.
This could perhaps explain why the artist, even at the peak of his success, is still “troubled in spirit”. A very important theme in the Hunger Artist is the religious one, linking Kafka’s parabola to the Biblical theme of Christ’s sufferings. The first indication of the parallel is the length of the hunger artist’s performance; we are told, from the very beginning that his impresario’s limitation of the artist’s public fasts is of 40 days, the same length of time that, according to the Bible, Jesus fasted. In fact, Jesus Christ is the portrait of suffering that the artist aspires to. Still, there is a major difference between the former and the latter: whereas Jesus Christ suffered for the sake of humanity, the hunger artist’s suffering is because of humanity. Unlike Christ, his death is useless to posterity, thus easily forgotten.
The hunger artist’s art form is, metaphorically speaking, his own suffering. Confined to the small space offered by the cage in which he performs, the hunger artist has complete control over his pain, which determines him to push himself more and more, reaching the very edge of human limits in his constant search for his greatest masterpiece. This endeavor will eventually bring the end of his life. Kafka uses the character of the hunger artist as an exponent of the alienated “starving artist” of the Romantics who put forward a new kind of hero in literature, more precisely the hero who escapes harsh capitalist society’s realities and focuses his energies solely on his art, usually from a dirty small room, i.e. the cage in the case of Kafka’s The Hunger Artist.
In relation to the metaphor of starvation as artistic suffering, which in turn, leads to creation, the hunger artist’s performance is a display of his feeling of alienation with regards to society. He cannot adapt to the exterior world; this is why he does not eat, because he cannot find anything suitable for him. Consequently, he fasts turning his act into a more involuntary than voluntary occupation: indeed, fasting is the only thing he can do considering his circumstances, and not a decision to inflict suffering upon himself.
Kafka, Franz. The Hunger Artist. Retrieved: Apr. 30, 2007