The story opens a "few decades" ago, at the height of the hunger artist's popularity. Everyone in the city wants to see the artist at least once a day, even at night. During the day, his cage is brought outside, where the children can view him as well.
In his "act," the hunger artist, well, starves himself. He sits, not eating, dressed in a black leotard, on some straw in his cage. His only accessory is a clock. Sometimes he interacts with the crowd, and even lets them feel how skinny he is. Sometimes he just stares ahead, taking a few sips of water from time to time.
Three watchmen guard the hunger artist constantly to make sure that he never sneaks in a bite. Their suspiciousness pains the artist, who sings in order to show them that he isn't eating. He provides a hefty breakfast for the night watchmen.
The manager sets the limit on the artist's starvation at forty days, which seems like a super long time to us. On the last day of starvation, there's quite a to-do. Before a large crowd, the cage is opened. Two doctors enter and take some measurements of the artist. These measurements are announced to the audience.
Then two young women arrive to help the artist out of the cage and down a few steps to a table where a very light meal has been prepared for him. If the artist protests, the manager picks him up by the waist and hands him over to the women. One of the women always loses heart at this point, to the laughter of the crowd, and a servant takes her place.
At the table, the manager pours a little of the meal down the artist's throat. The artist is barely able to speak, but the manager always pretends to banter with him to entertain the crowd. The manager tells the audience that the artist has proposed a toast to them.
The orchestra plays, and then finally the crowd disperses.
Despite all the attention, the artist is still depressed. Sometimes, someone will try to cheer him up by claiming that his sadness is probably just the result of his starvation. This really annoys the artist, who, enraged, shakes the bars of his cage.
To punish the artist for losing his temper, the manager claims that yes, the artist is irritable because he's hungry. The manager shows the audience photos of the artist on the fortieth day of his starvation, at the moment right before he finally gets to eat a meal. The artist, hopeless, gives up and sinks back on the straw.
Suddenly, no one wants to see the hunger artist's show anymore, although it is unclear why. (Maybe you have a few guesses?) The artist fires his manager and signs on with a circus.
The artist's cage is now placed between the main circus and the animal menagerie. During the intermission, the crowds pass by the hunger artist on the way to visit the menagerie. No one really seems to want to watch him, though – they're all in a hurry to check out the cool, exotic animals.
Now the hunger artist is able to starve for as long as he wants, but no one cares or even notices.
The artist is all but forgotten until one day, the circus supervisor notices the cage. The staff pokes around in the straw, and notices the artist there.
The artist confesses to the supervisor that he had only starved in the first place because he couldn't find any food he liked. Then he dies.
They bury the artist and his straw, and put a young panther in his cage. Unlike the artist, the panther is super popular, and the crowds can't seem to get enough of it.