A Hunger Artist

A Hunger Artist Summary and Analysis of Part Two

Part Two Summary:

The hunger artist continues his performances over the years, but he remains troubled, especially since no one takes his trouble seriously. When people tell him his fasting causes his sadness, he shakes his cage wildly. The impresario enjoys quelling this reaction; he lies to the audience, saying that fasting does cause sadness and that the hunger artist can barely endure his forty-day term (even though not being allowed to continue past forty days is what saddens the hunger artist). After this "perversion of the truth," the hunger artist collapses on his straw bed and the audience can again look closely at him.

Suddenly, the audience abandons the hunger artist for other attractions. The impresario launches a European tour, but he cannot stir up any interest. With few professional options, the hunger artist removes himself from the impresario and hires himself out to a circus without even bothering to read the contract. The circus is happy to take on the famous hunger artist, especially since he has not lost his fasting powers over the years. The hunger artist also claims he can astound the world by breaking the record for fasting, though he forgets that the public has lost interest in his act.

The hunger artist makes sure his cage is accessibly stationed on the outside of the ring, near the animals. This way the public must see his cage as they pass by to see the animals, but the passing crowd prevents anyone from staying to watch too long. After the hunger artist observes that most of the watchers are really on their way to see the animals; those who watch him do so more to assert themselves against the animal-watchers and less because they are interested in the hunger artist. He comes to dislike this segment more than he does the zoo-goers. All too rarely does the father of a family remember the hunger artist and explain to his children the story behind the hunger artist.

The hunger artist often thinks things might be better if he were not next to the animals; it makes it too easy for people to choose between him and the animals, the animals smell at night, and he must see and hear them at feeding time. Still, he does not complain to the management, especially since he has the animals to thank for whatever crowds he does pull. Over time, the audience simply passes him by, since it does not understand the art of fasting. The notice board indicating the length of the fast is not updated, so the hunger artist simply continues to fast‹he may be breaking records, but no one, including him, knows. If someone accuses the hunger artist of cheating, he feels it is the "stupidest lie," since it is he who is being cheated of his "reward."


The conflict between the hunger artist and the fickle public takes center stage here as he is forced to commercialize his art even more. "Forced" is an appropriate word, since the hunger artist loses whatever free will he has left. Imprisoned in his cage, all the hunger artist has going for him, it seems, is his artistic freedom. Others previously impinged upon this freedom in subtler ways‹the watchers thought the hunger artist was cheating, while the impresario limited his fasting to forty days‹but he still had the pleasure of controlling his self-denial, of scripting his own suffering. Now, the impresario makes outright lies about the hunger artist right in front of him.

It is notable that the impresario uses photographs to "prove" the state of the hunger artist's exhaustion. The audience believes more in the visual medium of photography than in what is in front of its eyes; the static, recorded spectacle is more important than the live one, and they are happy to buy the photographs as well, which are on sale. The analogy to a horror movie is still relevant; humans tend to have an attraction towards horror and suffering, especially if it reveals itself through some kind of recorded media (consider the enduring, obsessive appeal of the Zapruder tape of the Kennedy assassination).

As a measure of the hunger artist's reduced free will, he does not even read his circus contract. Kafka explores the fickleness of the public's consumption of art; it simply deserts the hunger artist one day for other diversions, as if he is a food for which they have inexplicably lost taste. At the circus, the hunger artist is reduced to this level of diversion‹he places himself in a strategic spot as a mere obstacle for zoo-goers, rather than as the main attraction. His proximity to the zoo also demonstrates the corruption of his talent and an ensuing debased equation with the animals.

Predictably, the hunger artist hates seeing and hearing the animals ravenously eat‹or, rather, at "feeding times," a more appropriate phrase for such savage consumption. Unlike before, when he enjoyed watching the butchers eat breakfast in front of him, the idea of others eating now depresses him. Previously, he controlled the consumption (the breakfast was at his expense) and could maintain his superiority of controlled fasting over the animalistic, weak-willed men. Now, the others are actually animals, and hearing them feed is only a reminder of his loss of free will.

To counter this loss of free will, the hunger artist persists in trumpeting the importance of his art. Though he previously conceded that fasting is an easy pursuit, the sentence "Just try to explain to anyone the art of fasting!" seems in his arrogant, alienated voice. Ironically, the greatest targets of the hunger artist's ire are not those who watch the animals, but those who stay to watch him only to defy the stampeding zoo-goers. Though he has reason to dislike them, since they are not really interested in him, his hatred seems like veiled self-loathing; he knows he has become a freak show, and he must project his depression outward.

Nevertheless, the hunger artist feels the world is "cheating him of his reward." The art itself is not enough; he still needs acknowledgment of his brilliance, despite his condescending, loathsome attitude towards the public. This mixture of superiority and inferiority is the crux of his relationship with the audience, and perhaps signifies what his fasting truly is, an arrogant craving for sympathy and appreciation.