Part One Summary:
Interest in professional fasting has declined over the last decades, as has income for the once-independent hunger artist. In years past, the whole town buys tickets and gazes fascinated at the emaciated hunger artist in his bare cage. Permanent watchers, usually butchers, are assigned to ensure the hunger artist does not cheat and sneak food. However, the hunger artist's code of honor forbids him from ever doing this. Still, the watchers often deliberately ignore him to give him a chance to eat. This practice infuriates the hunger artist and makes his fast more unendurable; he sings to prove he is not eating, but the watchers still believe he is somehow cheating.
The hunger artist prefers the watchers who stand close to the bars of his cage. A near insomniac, he enjoys talking with the watchers through the night and proving he has nothing edible in his cage. He is most happy when, in the morning, they are fed a hearty breakfast at his expense. Even then, some people suspiciously believe the breakfast is an attempt to bribe the watchers. The suspicions are not ungrounded; no one can watch the hunger artist all the time, so only the hunger artist himself knows for sure that he is fasting. The hunger artist is never satisfied, though, largely because he knows that fasting is very easy, a contention no one believes. Nevertheless, he has yet to leave his cage of his own free will after fasting.
His impresario (manager) limits the fasting periods to forty days, the maximum term for which the public can remain interested. After forty days, two young ladies escort the hunger artist out of his cage to a celebratory meal. But he always grows angry at this point; he does not want to stop the fast near the height of his powers and fame, and he believes there are no limits to his fasting. If he can endure the fasting, the public should be able to endure it, too. The idea of eating is nauseating to him, and he tries to signify this to his escorts, but they are cruel under their veneer of kindness. The impresario then grabs the hunger artist's waist to demonstrate the effects of fasting, shakes him up a little, and hands him over to the escorts. The hunger artist feebly submits to the ladies, who are repulsed by him; one of them cries and must be replaced by an attendant. The impresario feeds the hunger artist some food and toasts the public with words supposedly from the hunger artist. They leave satisfied, but the hunger artist remains dissatisfied, as always.
Before we begin analysis of "A Hunger Artist," it is important to note that the story, much like Franz Kafka's short story "Metamorphosis" and most of his other work, is heavily metaphoricalwe are not meant to take the hunger artist's story literally. However, Kafka's metaphorical fables are famously ambiguous and difficult to interpret. That said, a few things are indisputable about "A Hunger Artist": it concerns itself with art, suffering, and the artist's relation to his audience.
One of Kafka's major topics in his other works and here is the negative effect industrialization and capitalism has on art. Kafka paints a romanticized portrait of the hunger artist as the passionate starving artist who ignores his destitution and the necessity of a regular job. His cage is his cramped apartment from where his artistic inspiration springs, and he never looks at his cage's clock, that ultimate indicator of economics which signals when it is time to go to work. In fact, he never looks at anything else, either; he has total control over his own starvation.
However, we immediately learn that the hunger artist is no longer so independent. He now requires an impresario to manage the show, and the impresario sets a time limit for the fasting periodstime rears its ugly, capitalist head. More importantly, the hunger artist loses much of his free will when the impresario shakes him: "The artist now submitted completely." Instead of a serious artistic endeavor, the fasting is turned into an entertainment designed to appease the public.
But what exactly is the hunger artist's art? The hunger artist himself, at least, seems to consider his fasting a serious practice of self-denial rooted in masochism and suffering; he is even referred to as a "suffering martyr." He is obsessed with the limits of suffering. The first word (in the English translation) is "during," and the words "unendurable" and "endure" pop up at different times; the words reflect a state of painful continuation. The hunger artist wants a "performance beyond human imagination, since he felt that there were no limits to his capacity for fasting." This infinitude of fasting is ironic in that we usually think of infinity as a superabundance of quantity, whereas fasting is an absence of quantity (since nothing is being eaten; however, the fasting is then measured in how long one has fasted for).
However, the hunger artist complicates our appreciation of his art when he admits that fasting is easy to do. If we take fasting to be a metaphor for suffering, he is saying that suffering is easy. The artist as a suffering figure is nothing new; most art, it could be argued, and especially Kafka's writing, emerges from suffering. The hunger artist is merely revealing his suffering to the world. Let us ignore the fact that he is not converting his suffering to a medium we are accustomed to, such as writing. His medium is his cage and the public performance. But how meaningful is this art, or any art based on private suffering?
Kafka explores the hunger artist's complicated relationship with his audience, and in this relationship we can better see how each side appreciates the art. No one believes the hunger artist when he claims that fasting is easy. They do not understand his art at a basic level, and this incomprehension frustrates the hunger artist. They also trivialize his artthey believe he is somehow cheating, and they often do not pay him the attention he desperately craves. He enters a vicious cycle of suffering, since he suffers more when the audience does not understand his art of suffering. Metaphorically, he is the misunderstood artist, alienated from everyone even through his art.
However, this alienation and misunderstanding may be precisely why the hunger artist continues his art. He needs to feel superior to the audience; his suffering must be more intense, emotional, and intellectual than theirs. Therefore, he happily watches them gorge on food he has bought while he continues his fast. The artistry of the hunger artist, then, seems meaningful only to him. Only he can possibly understand his own craft, and despite his claims to the contrary, this is just how he wants it. Perhaps he recognizes that his art is fraudulent and cannot bear the thought that it will be understood and criticized. It is much safer to maintain the inaccessibility of his art; no one can judge it except for himself.
So what does the audience take from the exhibition? It is not intellectually interested in the private art of suffering so much as it is fascinated by the public spectacle of sufferingor the suffering of anyone else (note their delight when the female escort cries). In the same way motorists rubberneck at a roadside crash and moviegoers stare fixedly at gruesome on-screen depictions, the audience here finds the hunger artist's suffering disturbingly compelling. However, just as motorists and moviegoers rarely internalize and dwell upon the suffering of the victims, but move on down the highway or to the next scene, the audience does not suffer with the hunger artist. The watchers think the hunger artist is a cheat, and they often shirk their duty; after glimpsing his suffering, they are happy to move past it.
Since only the hunger artist knows he is fasting, he is the only one who can understand his art; thus, he is never satisfied. Usually we think of insatiability as a condition of excess; the spendthrift, the satyr, and the glutton are all insatiable. The hunger artist's fasting is, as previously commented upon, excessive in its nothingness. He is never satisfied with his own empty stomach, just as he can never be satisfied, or full, from the reception of his art. The audience, on the other hand, never has "any cause to be dissatisfied" with the show. The great irony is that the audience does not understand the art yet is pleased with it, while the artist understands his art but is not pleased. We may say that the hunger artist's exhibition is artistically unfulfilling inside the bars of the cage, while it is entertainingly fulfilling outside of the cage. The key to this divide of fulfillment is that the hunger artist still privately suffers. He does not relate this suffering to the audience, and Kafka suggests this dispersal of pain is the motivation behind the art: "if he could endure fasting longer, why shouldn't the public endure it?" Kafka is even-handed in his treatment of this drive; while sharing one's most private thoughts through art is a noble endeavor, there is also something selfish and hateful about it, as implied by the hunger artist's desire for the audience to "endure" his suffering.
Kafka draws a parallel between the hunger artist and the ultimate figure of suffering, Jesus Christ. The hunger artist's fasts are limited to forty days; Christ was "led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights" (Matthew 4:1-2). Christ's fast, which he most likely did to allude to the forty years of wandering for the Jews, has now become Lent. (The Biblical flood also lasts for forty days and nights, though the incident seems less significant for "A Hunger Artist.") However, Christ suffered for humanity; the hunger artist suffers because of humanity.
While there is no specific reference, the hunger artist may share one other salient characteristic with Christ (originally): he appears to be Jewish. At the very least, the hunger artist is marginalized and cast as the outsider in society as Jews usually are, and Kafka, a Jew, often draws this parallel in his writings. Backing up this contention is that the watchers assigned to his cage are usually butchers. While their profession says something about the gluttony of the audience, Jewish kosher guidelines prohibit pork and dictate specific preparations for meat. Judging by their lax attendance to watching the hunger artist, it is safe to assume these are not kosher butchers.