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Kafka's A Hunger Artist: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Katherine Garner

Katie teaches middle school English/Language Arts and has a master's degree in Secondary English Education

If you've ever heard or used the term, 'starving artist', you may find yourself drawn to Franz Kafka's well-known short story, ''A Hunger Artist.'' In this lesson, you'll find a synopsis of its plot and an analysis of its major themes, as well as the chance to test your own knowledge of ''The Hunger Artist'' with a brief quiz.

A Hunger Artist: Synopsis

A Hunger Artist focuses on a man who is a professional faster. With the support of an impresario, or business manager, he spends his days starving himself in a cage while spectators come to watch him.

The man takes his vocation very seriously, viewing himself as an artist rather than a mere circus freak. He is embarrassed and humiliated at any suggestion that his fast may not be pure, that he could be sneaking food when no one is watching. As part of the act, several people stand guard at his cage every night to ensure that he is not 'cheating', which angers him. Nothing is more important to the artist than maintaining the integrity of his fasting.

The impresario has placed limits on the man's fasting, determining that no fast should last longer than 40 days, a span based primarily on spectator interest. Every 40 days, crowds surround the cage to watch two doctors and two young ladies help the man out of the cage to a table where a meal is waiting. The hunger artist is reluctant to break his fast, even when encouraged by the impresario and the crowd. He fights to extend his fast even further, and several small bites of food have to practically be forced into his mouth before he is allowed to go back to his fasting.

Unfortunately, the artist is living in a time when interest in fasting as a spectacle is beginning to dwindle. Before long, hardly anyone comes to watch the man starving himself. He decides to part ways with the impresario and joins a large circus. Here, the artist's cage is placed near a major attraction, a menagerie of large animals, but hardly anyone stops to watch him fast.

Eventually, no one stops to watch the hunger artist at all. In a final blow, the circus management stops updating the board that records the number of days the man has been fasting. Although the artist finally exceeds his fasting limits, no one is there to appreciate his accomplishments, and even he himself loses track of how many days he has fasted.

The hunger artist becomes so small and weak that his cage appears empty except for a pile of straw. When a circus worker pokes at the straw, he realizes that the starving man is still there and alive, but barely. Deliriously, the hunger artist tells him that he's never deserved anyone's admiration, that he couldn't help but fast. When asked why, the artist delivers his last words, like a punch line to a long-running joke: 'Because I couldn't find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.'

After uttering his last words, the hunger artist dies. The circus replaces him with a young jaguar, whose wild strength and virility sharply contrasts with the strange, meek man who had previously occupied the cage.

Literary Analysis

A Hunger Artist is often read as an allegory, or a series of symbolic representations. In Kafka's story, the experience of the hunger artist represents those of many artists, who must reconcile loyalty to their work with the value the public places on what they are doing.

The hunger artist is primarily interested in the process of fasting itself: he wants to challenge himself and test his own physical boundaries. He would never dream of cheating because the whole point of the fast is to maintain its integrity. On the other hand, the impresario and circus management are more concerned with the effect the fasting has on spectators. They don't care whether the artist's fast is real or an illusion, as long as it draws a crowd.

The impresario manipulates the hunger artist and his environment for the purpose of dramatic effect and to create more of a spectacle. The artist's decision to leave the impresario and sign a contract with a big circus is analogous to other types of artists seeking support and security. As a result, they're sometimes criticized for 'selling out' or for making desperate attempts to remain relevant. They may even experience a loss of creative freedom.

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