30 Stories, Day 10: A Hunger Artist

Day 10 of my 30 day short story challenge means business. Kafka is a heavy-weight in the literary world and I am glad to have finally read “A Hunger Artist”; although it was somewhat depressing and leaves me heavy, it was also important. It reminds me of what not just good, but great literature can do: be timeless, and relevant throughout the ages.

“A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka

So then on the fortieth day the door of the cage—which was covered with flowers—was opened, an enthusiastic audience filled the amphitheater, a military band played, two doctors entered the cage, in order to take the necessary measurements of the hunger artist, the results were announced to the auditorium through a megaphone, and finally two young ladies arrived, happy about the fact that they were the ones who had just been selected by lot, and sought to lead the hunger artist down a couple of steps out of the cage, where on a small table a carefully chosen hospital meal was laid out.

Synopsis

Times have changed, says an omniscient narrator, and back in the old days a hunger artist was a spectacle. We are introduced to the culture of hunger artists, told what a phenomenon they were; about their visible ribs, the cage furnished with naught but straw, a glass of water, and a clock; how children would look on holding one another’s hands; how there used to be money in it.

Guards of three would be set to watch the hunger artist at all times to ensure he was not fed in secret. Of course, eating during a fast went against the hunger artist’s code—those guards that made a point of playing cards on their shift especially so some nourishment might be slipped him only diminished the sanctity of his art. The hunger artist would instead prefer guards who would sit close to the cage, and with whom he could speak, through long hours of story constantly proving himself, and be happiest when, in the morning, they were served a lavish breakfast and he watched them eat it.

Since none could observe him continuously, of course, none could be sure that his fast went unbroken: only the hunger artist could be certain of his virtue. But he was virtuous at his art, no question, because he was never satisfied with it; fasting, to him, was easy—so much so that no hunger artist had ever left, during a fast, the cage of his own volition. Since after forty days or so the public would lose interest, on the fortieth day the hunger artist would be medically examined, removed from the cage, celebrated and given a modest meal. The hunger artist never enjoyed the pageantry, nor the food: he wanted only to continue with his art.

He was gloomy and grew gloomier, because no one really understood him. But the art thrived and people came to see him, anyways.

Then things changed to their present state, and people lost interest in the hunger artist altogether. Being old and devoted to starving himself, there was little more he could do than join a circus. Of course, his display was a modest one: on the way to the menagerie, usually but a brief stop on the way of circus-goers. Attention used to reaffirm him; it was the main purpose of his life; now it is hard to come by.

Then attention grew even harder to come by. The hunger artist’s cage became a mere obstacle on the way to the animals. The circus staff stopped changing the number sign which counted how many days the fast had gone on, which, though a sign of neglect, allowed the artist to do what he had always wanted: to go fasting on and on, well past the forty previously-allowed days. Of course, since there was nothing to mark his progress and none observed him, now even he didn’t know the greatness of his achievement.

The days pass, and pass, and finally one of the staff notices a perfectly good cage and wonders why it is not being used, filled with naught but rotting straw. He asks the supervisor, and when they see the number on the table they remember the hunger artist. The poke through the straw and find him embedded in it. The hunger artist asks for forgiveness. “Why?” asks the supervisor. The artist replies that he had to fast because he could do nothing else; he had never tasted a food which was pleasing to him. Frail, he dies.

In the empty cage is placed a lively, prowling young panther, who eats food it enjoys to its heart’s content, and, though caged, is happy; the spectators are never in short supply.

Favorite line(s)

(I love the imagery and significance here): “People went straight past him. Try to explain the art of fasting to anyone! If someone doesn’t feel it, then he cannot be made to understand it. The beautiful signs became dirty and illegible. People tore them down, and no one thought of replacing them.”

Observations

“The hunger artist” singular is used to stand in for all hunger artists, which is awesome: it both conveys a greater culture of how things were and are now for the entire art, and simultaneously makes the telling appear specific and narrow as if about only a single protagonist. In this nameless/nonspecific way, “the hunger artist” can also stand in as a metaphor for basically anyone. Powerful stuff—I love parables!

The story is loaded with significant objects that reinforce the hunger artist’s struggles: the cage, the clock, isolation, etc. But if you want a thorough breakdown of symbolism I suggest checking out what SparkNotes has to say. If there’s any craft lesson I learned from this story in terms of symbolism, it’s that objects of significance should be accessible or intuitive to the reader. The clock in the cage, for instance: I felt it was representative of something larger from the beginning, and though I was unable to articulate what that was at the time, by the end of the story several time-related meanings were apparent.

Perhaps the greatest/most intriguing theme (which craftwise I like, because it leaves me, the reader, thinking), is this: what is it that the hunger artist is after? He says at the end that, if a food could satisfy his taste he would have eaten of it, yet he is proud of his art and says earlier on that forty days of fasting was never enough; he seems to thrive on being seen and admired, but even in the better days this did not seem to sustain him. This is the ultimate sadness: the hunger artist longs for an unobtainable goal. While (ideally) most artists’ art would satisfy them, the hunger artist needed the attention and validation of others to feel successful and happy and proud: an important lesson, surely, for artists of all sorts.

Also, I oscillate between past and present tense in my synopsis. Interesting.

Vocab

spurn: reject with disdain

emaciated: gaunt from disease, hunger, or cold

vigil: a period of wakefulness during time usually spent asleep; a peaceful demonstration in support of a cause

impresario: one who organizes/finances shows

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3 thoughts on “30 Stories, Day 10: A Hunger Artist

  1. I have read and greatly enjoyed Kafka’s “The Trial” and “Metamorphosis”, but was not familiar with “The Hunger Artist”. You describe it well.

    It makes me think of our shifting view of fasting through the ages. In early Christianity, the “desert fathers” would go on greatly extended fasts and be revered as saints. Today, we view fasting suspiciously, often as a sign of a psychological disorder. It seems Kafka was rather prophetic in this story.

    Thanks for the post. I’m definitely going to add this one to my reading list.

      • That’s a tough question. It’s been so long since I read them. I do seem to remember seeing a movie version of “The Trial” after reading the story and being quite impressed by that. Still, it’s hard to beat the opening lines of “Metamorphosis” – discovering that you wake up one morning and find you are a cockroach. My daughter is reading a version that translates it “vermin” (which, poetically, is much inferior), but in the footnotes it says the term is broader than “cockroach” would imply. I don’t think you could go wrong either way.

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