‘A Hunger Artist’ is a short story by Franz Kafka, published in 1922.
‘A Hunger Artist‘ is about a miserable, emaciated and lonely artist who fasts up to forty days to draw a large audience. It is said that the Hunger Artists or Starvation Artists were performers, a common sight in Europe and America during the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries. These artists starved themselves for a long period of time for the amusement of the paying audiences.
Through ‘A Hunger Artist’, Kafka tells the story of an anti-hero, keeping his behavior consistent throughout the length of the narrative, extremely motivated in his feat and brings realism in an unlikely plot.
The story begins with the focus on the declining popularity of Hunger Artists in the last few decades. Then, it retreats to a glorious past when the profession was lucrative, attracting huge spectators. The interest amongst the crowd peaked with the increase in the number of starved days.
‘During the final days there were people with subscription tickets who sat all day in front of the small barred cage.’
The entire town was interested to see the hunger artist; the cage was let out in the open air for the children to marvel at the man dressed in black tights, with ribs sticking out prominently.
At night, people could view the artist under torch lights and some even came as vigilantes lest the artist might eat something on the sly. However, the hunger artist says that he would never touch food during the starvation period as ‘The honour of his art forbade it’. He had felt the happiest when huge breakfast was brought in the morning for the night watchmen of his cage. There is contentment in the Hunger Artist to live inside the cage, lying on straw with a clock and a small glass of water to moisten lips.
The writing style induces pride in the protagonist’s feat at fasting. There was no binding on the Hunger Artists if, ‘…he left the cage of his own free will after any period of fasting’. He constantly wants to outdo his forty-day fasting record; he did not like people who felt sympathetic towards him. It is projected that it was easy for him to stay hungry, though people thought he was being modest.
‘Why did people want to rob him of the fame of fasting longer, not just so that he could become the greatest hunger artist of all time, which he probably was already, but also so that he could surpass himself in some unimaginable way, for he felt there were no limits to his capacity for fasting’.
For a Hunger Artist who had traveled extensively in Europe and drawn a huge crowd in the past, the protagonist feels let down by the audiences and his manager in his professional decline. His manager had restricted the fasting period to forty days as people lost interest post which no amount of advertising could gain an audience. The manager tries to work at getting large crowds but understands that the craft is going out of vogue. A few years later, with a greater decline in popularity, the manager and the hunger artist decided to go their separate ways.
In the pursuit of audience appreciation, the hunger artist thinks of joining the circus. His cage is set next to the animals. But here again, the hunger artist sees that people come to see animals at the menagerie and his cage is only on the way for them to pass by. Except for some random family who would stay back to notice the cage and explain the hunger artist’s performance, he did not generate excitement in the people.
He suggests the circus to place his cage at a distance from the animals so that there is a clear choice made by the people to visit his performance. Though gradually, the distance cuts off the rare chance of receiving an audience, and the staff at the circus become tired of the chore to maintain this cage, and no one pays heed to update the starved days on the display board. It is a poignant point in the story where ‘…the hunger artist was not being deceptive—he was working honestly—but the world was cheating him of his reward.’
Days later, a circus supervisor realizes the condition of the cage and found the hunger artist reduced to a mere skeleton within the heap of straws.
The final conversation elicits a dramatic explanation to the artist’s choice of this feat. Above the fact that he wants his work to be admired, he says that he knows nothing except fasting. And, further adds, “because I couldn’t find a food which I enjoyed. If I had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content, like you and everyone else.”
When he dies, a young panther is kept inside the cage and people flock in large numbers to see the vivacious being. The end symbolizes that the appetite for food and passion for living (in Panther) replaces the lack of these two traits in the ‘Hunger Artist’.