The protagonist of the story, the hunger artist fasts publicly in a cage for long periods of time. He revels in his willful self-denial and limitless suffering, but the public's inability to understand his art frustrates him deeply; he needs to feel superior to the audience yet is dependent on them for attention. He is a symbol of, among other things, the misunderstood artist whose work has been compromised by the negative forces of capitalism. However, the hunger artist admits that fasting is easy for him, and that if he found some food he liked, he would gladly eat it. If we take fasting to be a metaphor for suffering, he seems to be saying that suffering is a natural response to alienation, not a willful choice, and therefore should not be admired. This claim renders his art a dubious enterprise, but we cannot help but have sympathy for the hunger artist as he tries to connect with a fickle, unappreciative public. His final words indicate that, above all, he has unsuccessfully sought to give and receive love through his body, not merely suffer.
People are fascinated by watching the hunger artist fast. They have an odd attraction to spectacles of horror and suffering, as evidenced by their delight when one of the escorts cries. The hunger artist has a dual relationship with his spectators. While he needs to feel superior to them in terms of self-control (he enjoys watching them cave in to hunger as he fasts), he also requires their attentionone might view him as "starved" for attention. However, the audience does not understand the hunger artist's craft; the watchers (usually butchers, a symbol of gluttony and, perhaps, of non-kosher practices) assigned to ensure he truly fasts assume he cheats. Ultimately, the audience is a fickle lot that chooses cheap satisfaction from entertainment over difficult digestion of art. They desert the hunger artist without notice one day, entranced instead by his opposite, the vital, appetitive panther.
The impresario (manager) oversees the hunger artist's performances before the hunger artist hires himself out to the circus. The hunger artist was formerly able to perform independently, without management, when professional fasting was in greater favor. The impresario, then, seems like a symbol of the corruptive forces of capitalism. He restricts the hunger artist's free will and creativity, limiting his fasts to forty days and humiliating the hunger artist in public by shaking him and lying about his lack of endurance.
The panther replaces the hunger artist in his cage after he dies. A symbol of vitality, freedom, and appetite (Kafka lingers on descriptions of its jaws and throat), the panther hypnotizes the audience as a new spectacle of horror and sufferingexcept one that inflicts suffering, not absorbs it.
The young ladies escort the hunger artist out of his cage at the end of his fasts. They appear kind, but are cruel and repulsed by the hunger artist; one cries when she touches him.
The overseer of the circus talks to the dying hunger artist and hears his final words.
A Hunger Artist Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for A Hunger Artist is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The impresario limits the hunger artist's fasts to forty days, the same length of time Jesus fasted in Matthew 4:1-2. Christ is the ultimate figure of suffering, but the major difference between Christ and the hunger artist is that the former...
A hunger artist who professionally fasts in a cage has come on hard times. People think he cheats by sneaking food; his manager limits his fasting to forty days even though the hunger artist believes he can last longer; and he remains unsatisfied,...
People think he cheats by sneaking food; his manager limits his fasting to forty days even though the hunger artist believes he can last longer; and he remains unsatisfied, even when the public leaves his performances happily.