Study Guide

A Hunger Artist Life, Consciousness and Existence

By Franz Kafka

Life, Consciousness and Existence

The Story

[…] the starvation artist did not lose sight of reality and accepted it as perfectly natural that he, with his cage, should not be placed as, let us say, a showstopper in the center ring but installed outside at a quite easily accessible spot, close to the animal sheds. (7)

That word, "natural," has to be loaded with irony. What's natural about <em>anything </em>in this passage? The artist's proximity to the animal highlights his increasing dehumanization.

The manager […] raised his arms above the starvation artist as if inviting the heavens to look down at its handiwork, here on the straw, this pitiable martyr, which the starvation artist admittedly was, but in a quite different sense […] (3) [is his little meal some kind of communion? He must hate whatever it is they make him eat, since he doesn't find anything tasty]

Some more quasi-religious language here, with the manager staging the hunger artist as if he were some kind of "martyr," and the hunger artist's first meal after forty days of starving has echoes of other religiously significant meals, such as Passover or the Last Supper. The dramatic irony is that all of these religious aspects are staged by the manager to please the crowd. Typical Kafka: the narrator tells us that the artist is a martyr "in a quite different sense" – but doesn't tell us what this different sense is. It's a little infuriating, really.

Experience had proven that for about forty days, through gradually intensified publicity, you could go on stimulating a city's interest, but beyond that time there was no audience […] (3)

The "forty days" carries a possible echo of the temptation of Jesus in the New Testament, which also took forty days. But the forty days in Kafka's story refers to a marketing principle, at least for the profit-hungry manager – surely an ironic jab at any attempt at turning Kafka's story into a religious parable.

[The manager] intending through exaggerated caution to produce a convincing impression of how fragile a creature he was […] (3)

In Quote 4, the manager emphasizes the artist as some kind of martyr, a spiritual being killed for his religious views, but here he shows off what a "creature" he is.

[…] he felt no limits to his ability to starve. (3)

The artist seems to get a huge boost to his self-esteem just thinking about how great he is at starving.

[…] the starvation artist might respond with an outbreak of rage and, to everyone's horror, begin to rattle the bars of his cage like an animal. (4)

The artist's animalistic behavior here looks ahead to the end of the story, when he is replaced by a panther.

[…] there were also permanent watchmen, chosen by the public – oddly enough, usually butchers – whose job it was, always three at a time, to watch the starvation artist day and night […] (2)

The watchmen seem almost priest-like in the way they attend to the artist. But then again, they're butchers – ironic, since the man they're watching is starving himself. And why butchers? What is it about the hunger artist's performance that requires watchmen skilled in slaughter and slicing up meat?

Into the cage they put a young panther […] he did not even seem to miss his freedom; this noble body, equipped just short of bursting with everything it needed, seemed to carry its freedom around with it […] (10)

Ironically, the artist is replaced by a panther. But whether this panther is really a different spectacle is up for grabs. He may be an expression of "life" and "freedom," but like the artist, he is caged, and no (human) spectator understands the panther.

[…] his legs, from an instinct of self-preservation, pressed themselves tightly against each other at the knees […] (3)

Despite himself, the artist can't control his body's "instinct of self-preservation"; mind does not triumph over matter.

[…] the radiance of [the children's] searching eyes betrayed something of new, more merciful times to come. (7)

Even at the low point of his popularity, the children still view him with wonder (see Quote 2 in "Art and Culture").

The Hunger Artist (a.k.a. The Starvation Artist)

"Forgive me, all of you," the starvation artist whispered. (9)

There may be an echo here of Jesus' words both at the Last Supper and at his crucifixion; in the New Testament, his death is the sacrifice that ensures the forgiveness of all men's sins. In Kafka's story, the hunger artist begs forgiveness for, it seems, subjecting others to his performance. But judging from the circus manager's indifference, it doesn't seem like there's anything to forgive, which makes the artist's request for forgiveness seem absurd.