‘A Hunger Artist’, published in 1922, is a short story by Franz Kafka (1883-1924). The story is about a hunger artist in a circus who sits in a cage and fasts for weeks on end. However, after forty days have passed, the impresario who runs the circus always puts an end to the hunger artist’s period of fasting. But what is the meaning of this story? Is it, as is so often the case with Kafka’s fiction, a modern fable?
You can read ‘A Hunger Artist’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Kafka’s story below.
‘A Hunger Artist’: plot summary
The story is about a hunger artist: a circus performer who remains in a cage and engages in fasting for weeks on end, eating nothing. Crowds of people come to see him and admire his ability to last without food for such long periods of time.
The truth, which we learn early on, is that the hunger artist finds fasting easy, but whenever he tells people this, they don’t believe him. The hunger artist also grows annoyed that the impresario, who runs the circus, always stops the fasting after forty days and insists the hunger artist be brought out of the cage and given some food.
This is because he finds he can continue to drum up more interest in the hunger artist, but once forty days have passed, interest in the hunger artist always wanes, so there’s no point continuing. The hunger artist resents this curtailment of his art, however, because he wishes he could continue and see how long he could truly last.
As time goes on, the crowds in various cities and countries lose interest in watching the hunger artist, and fewer people stop to watch him in his cage: most continue straight on past him towards the animals, which they wish to watch instead.
Eventually, people lose interest in watching the hunger artist at work altogether. When the overseer of the circus opens the cage and discovers the man inside, still fasting even though nobody is watching, they ask him why he is continuing to fast even though he doesn’t have to.
He tells them that they shouldn’t admire his skill at fasting for so long because the truth is that he has never found the food he likes. That is why he fasts, and why it has come so easily to him all this time. They take him out of the cage and replace him with a panther, which people soon take a keen interest in, refusing to stop watching the panther in the cage.
‘A Hunger Artist’: analysis
Many of Kafka’s stories invite a biographical reading, and ‘A Hunger Artist’ is no exception. Written when Kafka was dying of tuberculosis of the larynx, the story explores the author’s preoccupation with eating and hunger, at a time when he was finding it difficult to eat anything. This probably explains the inspiration behind the central motif of the story; but what does it mean? How should we analyse this story at a deeper level?
The title provides a clue. Although it is ostensibly about hunger, ‘A Hunger Artist’ is, more widely, about the figure of the artist, and the challenges an artist – any artist – faces when trying to practise their art and gain recognition and admiration for it. The impresario (whom we might liken to the magazine editor, book publisher, theatre manager, etc. in other artistic fields) forces the hunger artist to end his performance after forty days, regardless of whether the man can continue beyond that point or whether he wishes to.
By continuing to go without food beyond forty days, he could raise his art to a higher level, but because there isn’t money in it – or an audience that wishes to see it – the artist has his artistic freedom restricted.
When analysed in this way, Kafka’s story might be viewed as a narrative embodiment of the well-worn truism, ‘the starving artist’: the writer or artist who suffers and struggles for their art, getting by on little material reward in pursuit of the perfection of their art. The hunger artist is prepared to starve himself to death in order to ‘perfect’ the art he practises.
But at the same time, the pursuit of the hunger artist’s art is not depicted as a personal struggle. Indeed, Kafka complicates the relationship between the artist and his audience by delivering the final twist, where it is revealed that the hunger artist’s devotion to his art stemmed not from purely artistic motivations but from personal preference: unable to find any food that he actually enjoyed, he simply chose not to eat. In other words, depriving him of food was not a struggle, because he wasn’t denying himself temptation. Kafka’s protagonist then hardly ‘suffering’ for his art at all. He doesn’t even want the approbation or admiration of his audience. He doesn’t feel he deserves it.
This raises more questions about the meaning of ‘A Hunger Artist’ and what Kafka might be saying about the relationship between the individual artist and the marketplace. One way to resolve these disparate aspects of the story is to argue that Kafka is exploring the need for artistic autonomy, regardless of either the artist’s motivation or the audience’s preferences. True art comes naturally to the artist, like an inspired genius, and similarly it should be allowed to exist, even if nobody of his time appreciates it or takes an interest.
Given Kafka’s determination to write against the trends of his time – he has often been grouped with the modernists, who preferred pursuing artistic experimentation to achieving high sales of their work – we might propose that ‘A Hunger Artist’ acts as a sort of parable for the need of the artist to ‘be’, to practise his art as he wishes, regardless of the vagaries of public taste.