A Hunger Artist

A Hunger Artist Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Franz Kafka's A Hunger Artist. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka was the son of Hermann and Julie Kafka, the eldest of six siblings in his middle-class Ashkenazi Jewish family. He had a relatively isolated upbringing as his parents worked long hours away from home, often leaving the young Kafka in the care of governesses and servants. His family was frequently in tragic circumstances: two of Kafka’s brothers died in infancy (and his three sisters were to perish in the Holocaust many years later). Kafka’s father had little time for his son’s creativity, and Kafka felt his mother was too devoted to domestic life to understand his dreams of becoming a writer. Kafka did not live on his own until the age of 31. After a solid early education, Kafka went to university to study law, where he found a kindred spirit in his friend Max Brod, who shared and encouraged Kafka’s interest in literature. After graduation, Kafka took employment in the insurance industry, working on his writing during the evenings. Though wracked by self-doubt, Kafka was well-liked by his peers and was twice engaged to marry his girlfriend, Felice Bauer, though they eventually separated in 1917. From a young age Kafka was frequently ill, suffering from migraines, anxiety and insomnia. Kafka contracted laryngeal tuberculosis in 1917 and spent much of his later years in sanatoriums in an attempt to improve his health. He lived in Berlin for a while, under the care of his new girlfriend Dora Dymant, before returning to Prague. In 1924, having traveled to a sanatorium in Vienna, Kafka died, likely from starvation brought about by the extreme throat pain caused by his illness. He had published very little at the time of his death. In fact, it is only because of Max Brod, who disobeyed Kafka’s request to burn his unpublished manuscripts, that some of Kafka’s best-known work survives (including the renowned novels The Castle and The Trial). Kafka’s reputation quickly rose after his death, as his work’s themes of isolation, paranoia, and bureaucracy grew increasingly pertinent to a Europe dealing with the fall-out of world war and the tensions in countries living under Communist rule. He is now considered one of the foremost writers of the 20th century, and such is his influence that “Kafkaesque” has entered the general lexicon of the English language.
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Historical Context of A Hunger Artist

“A Hunger Artist” was one of Kafka’s final texts. In fact, he was working on it on his deathbed. There is also some truth to the story itself: hunger artistry was a genuine phenomenon that once drew large crowds, peaking in popularity in the 1880s. More widely, Kafka’s experience of growing up as a Jew in Prague contributed to a general distrust of authority found throughout his work. Though Prague was a civilized and cosmopolitan city, Jews were frequently ostracized from society and Kafka did not feel an affinity with the ruling Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many critics have noted how Kafka’s ability to create a sense of organized terror in his writing foretells the approaching horrors of the 20th century, namely Stalin’s Soviet Russia and Hitler’s Nazi regime.

Other Books Related to A Hunger Artist

Kafka’s writing is so distinctive in its quiet paranoia and elusive meaning that his body of work is often considered to be singular and completely of its own world. That said, Kafka was an avid reader from an early age. The German writers Thomas Mann and Heinrich von Kleist had a big influence on him, as did foreign authors like Charles Dickens (although Kafka found much to dislike in his work), Gustav Flaubert, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Kafka was an isolated figure, publishing little in his lifetime—but the writing that eventually did find a readership had such a profound impact on the literary world that Kafka, along with Shakespeare and Orwell, is one of the few writers whose name has become an adjective in the English language. “A Hunger Artist” has much in common with Kafka’s other work, however. It has a fable-like quality without clear resolution, its central character cuts a solitary figure, and there is little evidence of empathy from any of the characters—these, along with the complicated bureaucratic structures in books like The Trial, are the narrative elements now thought of as Kafkaesque. It is difficult to find authors after Kafka that weren’t influenced by him in some way; Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Milan Kundera are just two of the 20th century’s most significant writers to acknowledge a huge debt.
Key Facts about A Hunger Artist
  • Full Title: "A Hunger Artist" (German: "Ein Hungerkünstler")
  • When Written: 1922
  • Where Written: Prague
  • When Published: 1922 in German, 1938 in English
  • Literary Period: Modernism
  • Genre: Short story
  • Setting: A nondescript “Europe”, probably in the 19th century
  • Climax: The death of the hunger artist
  • Antagonist: The Audience / The Impresario
  • Point of View: Third-person omniscient

Extra Credit for A Hunger Artist

Language Complications. Franz Kafka had a tense relationship with his language, German, which he spoke with a Czech accent. It is sometimes claimed that Kafka’s spare and economic style comes from his ‘Prague German’, but this probably owes more to a 19th century myth: that “proper” German was spoken by the socially conservative population of the countryside, and that city-dwellers spoke a corrupted and inferior form of the language.

Tragic Reality. Kafka made his final edits to “A Hunger Artist”, a story of starvation, on his deathbed — as his tuberculosis prevented him from eating properly.