At the beginning of the story, the hunger artist is at the height of his popularity. He's drawing huge crowds to his performances and hopes to be the best hunger artist ever.
Despite his success, the artist is dissatisfied because he does not have complete control over his performance. His manager adds drama his performance to please the lowbrow tastes of the audience.
Suddenly, the hunger artist is no longer popular. We don't know why, we just no that audiences just aren't interested in watching a starving guy in a cage. The manager and the artist tour throughout Europe, trying to find an audience, but they have no luck.
The climax of the story is, well, anti-climactic. No longer popular, the artist fires his manager and joins the circus, where he is now just a sideshow. The exotic animals are way more popular.
The hunger artist adjusts to his diminished status in the circus. While in the beginning, the artist still had some hope that someone would appreciate his act, it becomes clear that no one really cares. Most spectators who pass by his cage are in a hurry to get to the animal menagerie. As time goes on, the artist loses track of the days. He finally beats his forty-day fasting record, but no one, not even himself, knows exactly how long he has starved.
The hunger artist entirely disappears from the public eye – almost. The circus manager notices the artist's cage, where the weakened artist is buried beneath some straw. The artist whispers his last words to the circus manager, who doesn't seem to care.
In a final twist, a young panther replaces the artist. The panther is hugely popular with the crowds, who give the panther the kind of attention they gave the artist at the height of his career. The fact that, at this point in time, the crowds prefer the panther over the artist makes his death seem even more pathetic.