Part Three Summary:
After neglecting and forgetting about the hunger artist, the circus workers remember he is inside the cage, and an overseer asks him if he is still fasting. The hunger artist asks everyone to forgive him, and says that though he always wanted people to admire his fasting, they should not. He has to fast, he explains, because he could never find any food he liked. Had he found food he liked, he would have eaten it.
With this explanation, the hunger artist dies. The circus buries him and places a panther in the cage. Everyone likes seeing the lively, free panther, and they crowd round its cage and never want to move away.
The hunger artist previously admitted that fasting is easy, although no one believed him. He elaborates here; it is easy for him because he simply does not like any food. This could be sly self-mockery on the part of Kafka, who was a vegetarian. However, his vegetarianism was the product of a deep sanctity for life; he famously remarked to fish in an aquarium "Now I can look at you in peace; I don't eat you anymore." More intriguingly, some people interpret Kafka's vegetarianism as concealing his inferiority complex about his body. Kafka always felt great insecurity when compared to his strong, masculine father, the single most important figure in his life. His fastidiousness about eating also relates back to stringent Jewish kosher guidelines and perhaps reflects Jewish insecurities about the body.
If we return to the metaphor of starvation as artistic suffering and creation, the hunger artist implies that the world is simply not designed for him, that it naturally produces suffering in him. If he were not so alienated, he admits, he would gladly "eat." This statement undermines the free will of self-denial he previously coveted. Fasting is a mere reflexive action, not a conscious decision to suffer. Fasting is as much a non-art, then, as everyone else's eating is. The hunger artist claims he wanted to be admired for his fasting, but his actions betray his real desire when he speaks "with his lips pursed, as if for a kiss, right into the overseer's ear." Never opening his mouth for food, the hunger artist could also neither give nor receive any love inside his cage. His body could never be used as a conduit for love, but only as a channel for suffering.
The panther is the inversion of the hunger artist. Kafka ensures we recognize it as a symbol of appetite and vitality by drawing attention to the freedom lurking in its "jaws" and the "joy of life" streaming from its "throat." The panther overcomes the imprisonment of its cage and still feels free. The hunger artist, on the other hand, though he thought himself free at times through his self-denial, was always a captive of his own suffering and starvation.
The panther is the next spectacle for the audience, a horrific new entertainment from which the public cannot tear its eyesa violent symbol of that which causes, not absorbs, suffering. The last line suggests the panther truly has supplanted the hunger artist as a much more digestible, commercial art form. Perhaps there is some bitter irony in the line, as well; it would not be surprising if the fickle audience deserts the panther at one point, just as it has done to the hunger artist.