In the end, the hunger artist dies, unappreciated and nearly forgotten. The circus workers clear the cage of his body and his straw. Then they put a frisky young panther in the cage. To pile insult upon injury, the panther is super popular.
Yes, the hunger artist is upstaged by a panther.
Granted, this panther seems a tough act to beat. The panther is described as the embodiment of vitality and freedom, despite being confined to his cage. (Yep, the total opposite of the boney, dying artist.) But there's a heavy dose of irony here. The panther only seems not to miss his freedom; we never learn if, actually, the panther does miss his freedom (10). What do you think?
To the spectators that come to gawk at the panther, however, it seems like big cat doesn't miss its freedom at all. Cage or no cage, they think the panther is perfectly happy. The last word doesn't belong to the panther or the hunger artist, but to these crowds of spectators transfixed in front of its cage. Is it just us, or is there is something icky – almost vampiric – about the intensity with which they watch the panther? As the narrator tells us, the spectators can barely resist the urge to suck the "joy of life" right out its jaws (10).
Perhaps the final joke is on the audience. They seek spectacles of freedom – the artist freely choosing to starve, the panther and his seemingly self-sufficient freedom – but these spectacles require them to restrict the freedom of their performers, to confine and cage them. The spectators coerce these performances of freedom from their performers, human and animal. In short, in order to get what they want (freedom), they have to do the opposite (restrict freedom). The ending of the story doesn't resolve the conflict between the artist and his audience, but rather takes it to the -nth level.