A Hunger Artist

A Hunger Artist Study Guide

Kafka wrote the short story "A Hunger Artist" in 1922. He combined it with three other stories for the collection A Hunger Artist, which was published soon after his death in 1924.

All four stories in some way detail the negotiations of artists with society, but "A Hunger Artist" is by far the most celebrated and studied. In typical Kafka fashion, the story feels at once dream-like and utterly real; no such hunger artist could exist as Kafka describes it, yet all the events and feelings in the story seem true to life. As with much of Kafka's writing, a subtle, dark strain of humor runs through the story, capped by the hunger artist's deceptively simple comment that he simply does not like any food. (Kafka, at the very least, often found his own works very comic.)

The hunger artist is the typical Kafka protagonist?alienated, misunderstood, and victimized by society. We can trace several features of the story back to Kafka's life. Like the hunger artist in his cage, Kafka always lived in cramped housing; however, the former feels free in his cage, while Kafka felt confined. To support his family, Kafka was forced to take on an office job he hated, especially since he felt it interfered with his writing. Likewise, the hunger artist must hire himself out to a circus, where his art is no longer appreciated.

Kafka, too, felt unappreciated and misunderstood by everyone (including himself?he asked that his unpublished work be burned after his death?fortunately, his literary executor, Max Brod, did not follow through). The primary meaning of the now-clich?d adjective "Kafkaesque" pertains to the nightmarish logic of his dark fables, but a pervading sense of alienation is the runner-up.

"A Hunger Artist" also reveals Kafka's own preoccupation with food. He became a vegetarian out of sanctity for life, famously remarking to some fish in an aquarium "Now I can look at you in peace; I don't eat you anymore." Some critics see his vegetarianism as the product of his inferiority complex next to his strong, burly father. Kafka was always thin, and in 1917 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis (from which he would die in 1924). Being a vegetarian, some interpret, was Kafka's way of actively rejecting the bodily strength he would never have anyway, much like the hunger artist actively denies himself the food he would never like anyway. Nevertheless, Kafka's loathed his undersized physique and was always trying to bulk up.

Lastly, several parts of the story indicate that the hunger artist is Jewish, or at least symbolically Jewish. Kafka strongly identified with his Jewish ancestry though he never fully accepted Judaism, and the rift was yet another source of alienation for him.