The story opens with a contextualization of hunger as an art form. The narration tells the reader that, though it was once a popular and profitable spectacle, the art of hunger has a suffered a “marked decline” over the “last few decades.”
Kafka situates the story not at the heyday of hunger artistry, but during its decline. This provides more focus on the hunger artist’s struggle—his motives for starvation are placed under the microscope. Already the reader can sense a division between art and entertainment, as suggested by the emphasis on popularity and profitability.
The story’s particular hunger artist was once one of the most successful in his field. Back then, “the whole town got involved with the hunger-artist.” People keep vigil day and night, sitting in front of the cage, fascinated by the hunger artist’s “startlingly protruding ribs” and his “strained smile.”
The hunger artist’s earlier success is to a large degree dependent on the engagement of his audience, the general public. The closer they scrutinize him, the more authentic his act. He is not only separated from them by his cage, a clear symbol of division, but his stark physical appearance also provides a source of mystery and intrigue. By reducing his physical form, the hunger artist becomes less and less like other people—but in doing so, he provokes (or tries to provoke) questions about life and death. It’s not clear whether the hunger artist smiles because he’s popular, or because his act is affecting people in the way he would like.
Though some adults see him as “just a bit of fun,” the hunger artist is deeply and morbidly fascinating to children, who watch “open-mouthed, holding each other by the hand for safety” whenever the hunger artist comes near. The hunger artist revels in this attention, offering his arms through the bars so that their thinness might be felt, rejecting the use of his chair, and taking no nourishment other than the occasional sip of “water from a tiny glass, to moisten his lips.”
Despite his physical weakness, the hunger artist is still a performer. The offering of his skinny arms and the rejection of his chair are both theatrical gestures, designed to “perform” his hunger. Even though the hunger artist prides himself on the purity of his art, it’s clear that he also enjoys the attentions of the audience. He scares the children in much the same way that ghost stories do, offering them a first sense of their own mortality. But the fact the adults see the act as more fun than fearful predicts the coming decline in its popularity (they’re becoming immune to its shock value).
As well as those spectators, the hunger artist is also watched by a publicly-nominated team of “warders,” who observe him around the clock to make sure he isn’t sneaking any food and cheating the public. Funnily enough, these warders are usually butchers. Those in the know—"the cognoscenti”—view these guardians as merely a formality. To them, no hunger-artist would ever cheat, because the “honor-code of his art forbade it.”
To give his act the meaning he so longs for, the hunger artist needs external verification in the form of warders. Without them, he lacks any proof of his fasting—he depends on them. But they clearly don’t take his act as seriously as he does, assuming that he probably cheats. This cheapens the honor that the hunger artist holds so dear—he knows, as do the hypothetical “cognoscenti,” that his art is too noble to be demeaned by sneaking food. It’s ironic, too, that the warders are usually butchers, people whose livelihoods are so closely involved with food. Unfortunately for the hunger artist, no single individual cares enough to watch him for an entire fast (they’ve got other things to do, including sleep!). Logically speaking, then, the hunger artist’s act can never be perceived as 100% pure and authentic (even though it is), because in the audience’s eyes there’s always a chance either he or one of his warders might be lying.
Much to the hunger artist’s annoyance, not all warders are as respectful towards the authenticity and nobility of his art. Some groups aren’t committed enough to keep their full attention on him at all times. They sometimes play cards in the corner with the “plain intention of permitting the hunger artist to have a little snack that they supposed he could produce from secret supply somewhere.”
These are the warders the hunger artist resents the most: because they don’t pay him their full attention, they delegitimize his act. They also seem to trivialize him by playing cards—but they want to entertain themselves, because watching the hunger artist is, in all honesty, quite boring. Entertainment, then, takes precedence over art. To these warders, life is not about some all-encompassing pursuit of greatness—they’d rather have fun, socialize with their peers, and not take life too seriously. On either side of the cage’s bars, then, are two utterly distinct ideas of what gives life meaning.
This lack of respect for his art torments the hunger artist, depresses him and generally makes his starvation much more difficult. Sometimes he gathers the strength to sing in order to demonstrate that he isn’t eating, but this doesn’t bother the warders (or “invigilators”) much. They “merely registered surprise at his rare talent for eating even while singing.”
The hunger artist tries to take matters into his own hands. By singing all the time, he thinks he can allay the doubts of the disrespectful warders—surely if he’s singing he can’t be eating at the same time. It’s important that he chooses to sing rather than some other method of keeping the warder’s attention—he’s like a caged bird, whose singing is a small act of freedom in defiance of its imprisonment. But in this case, the hunger artist doesn’t sing as an act of liberation; instead, his singing attempts to make his art purer and more authentic. In other words, he is so defined by his single-minded commitment that it actually holds him captive.
The hunger artist’s preferred invigilators are those who don’t take their eyes off him, those who sit “right in front of his bars” and keep their torches on him during the night. The hunger artist doesn’t mind the harsh light, as he rarely sleeps anyway. He likes to converse with these more attentive warders, joking with them, telling them his stories of “life on the road,” and hearing their own stories—all with the aim of making them see “that he was capable of starving as none of them was capable of doing.”
Again, Kafka reinforces the idea that the hunger artist needs the attention of others to make his art meaningful. He knows that the presence of these warders, who hardly take their eyes off him, make his act generally more believable. Furthermore, it’s in these moments—when his art is most respected—that he is also most human, enjoying the company of others and swapping stories. That said, these interactions are still defined by his desire to prove the superiority of his fasting abilities—even when he gets the desired attention, the hunger artist is still constantly self-conscious about how he is perceived.
Nothing makes the hunger artist happier than buying these warders a lavish breakfast the morning after, “at his expense,” and watching them devour it as would be expected of hungry people. Some cynics would intimate that this is effectively a bribe by the hunger artist, but they usually shut up when asked if they would like to take over guarding the cage without any breakfast as reward (“but they still clung to their suspicion”).
The hunger artist loves these occasions because they make the difference between him and the average person most apparent. These warders can hardly contain their hunger as they devour their breakfasts, thus helping the hunger artist demonstrate his superior ability to fast. That he relishes being the one who buys the breakfast further proves that his pride in his work is closely linked with how society perceives him. But as mentioned above, even these committed warders can’t stay with him all the time, so his art can never be as completely pure as he would like. This suggests that art is dependent on its audience, but also that the artist never has total control of how their work is received.
This mistrust of the hunger artist is to be expected. No one person is capable of being with him all the way through an entire fast, so his art is never completely verifiable, and thus is also subject to suspicion. The hunger artist doesn’t completely sympathize with this mistrust, because to him starving “was the easiest thing in the world.” Even when he tells this to the public, they either think he is being modest or is merely a cheat.
Although the hunger artist performs his art under such extreme, self-imposed conditions, he tells people it’s easy. But of course, it’s anything but—it’s only “easy” to him because he literally doesn’t do anything else. Because hunger is the absence of eating, all he has to do is stay true to his spirit of self-denial—it’s more about what he doesn’t do than what he does (and it’s not really a skilled craft like painting or sculpting). But on another level, perhaps this is the hunger artist’s way of verbally expressing the fact that he sees life in a starkly different way from the rest of society. Maybe he really does think living a “normal” life of work, family and friends etc. is harder than his solitary pursuit. The public can’t understand that point of view, and therefore the gulf between the artist and his audience grows ever wider.
The hunger artist never leaves his cage of his own free will. It is always his manager that brings an end to his fasts. The manager has realized that forty days is the maximum time a town will take interest in the act, so it is then time to pack up and move on to the next place.
One of the core elements of capitalism is supply and demand—providing a product to match how much it is desired by society. The manager, whose primary concern is making a profit, follows this philosophy to its core. The length of fast that he permits the hunger artist to keep is purely dictated by how long the act holds the attention of the public—and it’s typical of Kafka’s dark sense of humor that this just so happens to be the same length as Jesus’s fast in the desert. But whereas through his forty days and nights Jesus found a deep strength and meaning that he wished to share, the hunger artist finds only frustration that he isn’t allowed to realize the true greatness that his “talent” would allow. His status as entertainment, then, prevents him from realizing what he sees as the zenith of his art.
On the fortieth and final day of the fasts, the manager orchestrates a big, garish ceremony to entertain the audience. There are brass bands, the cage is “flower-garlanded,” and doctors theatrically examine the hunger artist. Two young ladies lead the hunger artist, against his will, to a small meal laid out on a table. Out of politeness, the hunger artist does not cause a scene (he is too weak to do so anyway). The manager uses his showmanship to create a sense of occasion, and the ladies are terrified by the physical appearance of the hunger artist, much to the audience’s delight. The manager feeds a few morsels to the hunger artist and “propose[s] a toast to the spectators” before they go on their way.
These tacky, faux celebrations go against everything the hunger artist stands for: purity, denial of the sensory pleasures, and artistic commitment. The manager, however, knows they’re what the public wants, and indulges their basest desires. To him, it’s all theatre—entertainment—not art. The hunger artist doesn’t really need the help of two ladies, but the manager knows that they will be horrified by the emaciated man’s appearance and that this in turn will amuse and excite the crowd. Likewise, the doctors aren’t there to actually take care of the hunger artist, but to add drama. It’s all a show—to everyone except the artist himself.
This is how the hunger artist lives for many years: “in apparent splendor,” and drawing huge crowds. But the hunger artist is rarely happy, because no one really respects or truly understands his art. When “kind-hearted individuals” suggest out of concern that perhaps his sorrow is due to his hunger, the artist responds with fits of “rage.”
What the hunger artist really wants is for his art to be understood—but his art is also predicated on him being the best, on no-one else having the kind of dedication it requires. Even though his “show” is playing to huge crowds and receiving a lot of attention, it’s the wrong kind of attention for the hunger artist. But a society that truly understood him would be a society full of other hunger artists—his “art” can only exist because it depends on taking place outside the norms of society, both in terms of the philosophy it requires and the physical separation of the cage. In fact, it enrages the hunger artist when the public tries to empathize with him, especially when they think he’s unhappy because he’s hungry.
The impresario has a crafty solution to these angry outbursts. He explains to these concerned spectators that the hunger artist’s fury is indeed the result of his lengthy starvations. Furthermore, the manager claims that the hunger artist’s belief that he can fast longer than forty days is respectable but wrong. To prove his point, the manager shows people photographs of the hunger artist, “almost extinguished with debility,” in bed during the breaks between fasts. This greatly angers the hunger artist, as his bad condition is, to his mind, the result of the termination of his fast, not its length—but he never has the energy to argue, and just “lapse[s] back into the straw with a sigh.”
The manager takes advantage of the hunger artist’s physical weakness. The latter is powerless to resist as the manager manipulates the spectators’ perception of him, falsely confirming their suspicion that the artist’s anger is due to hunger. In reality, these outbursts do not happen because the hunger artist lacks food; it’s because the manager keeps stopping the fasts at the forty-day limit, preventing him from further “greatness.” This reinforces the idea that art and entertainment are sometimes contradictory pursuits—the different desires of the manager and the hunger artist are ultimately incompatible.
Once the popularity of hunger artistry has fallen a few years later, the public talk about why this happened, surprised that it had done so almost imperceptibly. It was “as if by tacit arrangement a positive aversion against hungering had formed.” During those years of decline, the manager takes the hunger artist all over Europe, but has little success. Perhaps one day the “vogue for hunger” will come around again, the narrator says, but its hey-day has now passed.
Tastes in entertainment are subject to change, and unfortunately for the hunger artist, his art is no longer of much interest to the public. The manager tries his best to squeeze the most out of his investment, but the demand has fallen. Perhaps if people had cared more about hunger artistry—if it really meant something to them, and wasn’t just a novelty—more would have been done to stop its decline.
Still dedicated to his art, the hunger artist parts ways with his manager and joins the circus—not even bothering to look at his contract. This is a large circus with various acts and animals, and the hunger artist naively feels that his greatest achievements are yet to come. This is “a claim that, in view of the temper of the times, which the hunger artist was apt in his enthusiasm to forget, raised a smile with the experts.”
The hunger artist, naïve in his beliefs, genuinely thinks there’s a chance that his act might be come popular again, and that he will achieve new levels of greatness. But that greatness needs an audience to appreciate it, and without one his art is meaningless. The circus is the hot new ticket in town, with acts that are much more exciting to the public, and the hunger artist is now more a figure of pity than respect. The hypothetical “experts” know that times have changed, but the hunger artist is too focused on his artistic vision to notice.
The hunger artist isn’t given a prominent position in the circus, and instead is “left outside in a readily accessible spot next to the animal stalls.” Most people only look at him in the intermissions of the main circus performance, on their way to animals. Often he hardly gets a “sideways glance” as people “hurried past with long strides.”
The hunger artist’s placement in the layout of the circus reflects his diminished popularity and respect. His “art” is no more valuable than the “art” of the circus animals—who, of course, aren’t even performers, just living creatures going through their usual bodily functions. For all his attempts to elevate humanity through his art, the hunger artist is quickly becoming a literal nonentity.
The hunger artist is too proud to complain to the circus management about the placement of his cage (not to mention the “smells of the stalls, the restlessness of the animals at night, the carrying past him of hunks of raw meats for the beasts of prey, and the roars and cries at feeding time that were a continual source of offence and upset to him”). But he knows that without the animals the circus wouldn’t have nearly the same the number of visitors—even if not many of those actually come to see him.
There is a certain irony in what’s happened to the hunger artist. By trying to deny the most fundamental of human concerns, he has attempted to lift himself above society and provoke others to question what it really means to be alive. But the result of his “art” hasn’t been any kind of group revelation—instead, he has become more and more like the animals near his cage. He has, in fact, become sub-human, a caged creature that doesn’t even have any of the physical prowess or exoticism that makes the animals captivating.
Neglected by the circus staff and the audience, who would rather watch the animals, the hunger artist is finally free from the forty-day constraint previously imposed on his fasting. But because no-one is watching, the length of his fasting isn’t measured, let alone authenticated. Over time, the signs marking his cage began to fade and the staff stop tending to his habitat. The hunger-artist knows he is achieving new heights of greatness, but “his heart grew heavy” that nobody is bearing witness to his work.
Finally the hunger artist is free to take his art as far he has always wanted. But there is one fatal flaw: there’s nobody around to authenticate his fast, no way of measuring its length, and not enough concern for him to make sure he comes back from the brink of death. The main reason for the neglect of the hunger artist is that as a product, he’s no longer worth anything, be that money or care and attention. But if his act is dependent on his worth as a product, it raises the question of whether or not his art was ever the pure and noble practice that he thought it was in the first place.
One day, an overseer on the circus staff comes across the hunger artist’s cage, wondering why it isn’t being put to good use. Upon finding the extremely weak hunger artist amongst the straw, a brief conversation takes place between the artist and the overseer, with other circus staff members present. The hunger artist asks them to forgive him, and the overseer says that they do. “I always wanted you to admire my starving,” admits the hunger artist, and then chastises the overseer for saying that he is admired. Finally the hunger artist claims that he only fasted because “I couldn’t find any food I liked.” After these last words, the hunger artist finally dies from his starvation.
The hunger artist is now so worthless to the circus that he’s been completely forgotten. He’s now less valuable than the cage that contains him, and it’s only because a member of staff thinks the cage should be put to use that he is discovered in his terrible state. No doubt this has been the greatest fast of his life—but it’s also the most meaningless, because nobody’s watching. This is further exemplified by the exchange between the hunger artist and the staff at the end. The staff are just trying to appease the hunger artist, saying on the one hand they respect him and on the other they don’t (depending on what he seems to want them to say). The hunger artist seems confused, but what he does actually makes sense—his whole life he’s been a contradiction, trying to go beyond society but always needing its attention to give his art meaning. It’s difficult to know what the reader should make of the hunger artist’s claim that he only fasts because he can’t find any food that he likes—that’s patently not true when the rest of the story is taken to account. Alternately, it could be a somewhat poetic statement about the artist’s fundamental disconnection from the rest of society—the “food” he was looking for was human connection and understanding, and he never was able to find that. Or perhaps these final words are Kafka’s absurdist joke for the reader, a darkly humorous challenge to find the meaning in the story that the public never truly found in the hunger artist, and that he never found in them.
The overseer of the circus quickly makes sure that they move on, and he has the hunger artist buried. They replace the hunger artist with a “young panther,” which quickly catches the imagination of the spectators, and which seems “not to miss freedom” now that it has all the food it wants. “Its love of life came so powerfully out of its throat that it was no easy matter for spectators to withstand it.” At least for a while, the public is enraptured by the new exhibit: “they steeled themselves, clustered round the cage, and would not budge.”
There is no time to mourn the hunger artist in the cut-throat world of entertainment, and the public certainly doesn’t miss him. This new exhibit is much more captivating: the raw animal nature of the panther shows the audience something genuinely different from them, and something so much easier to understand than the hunger artist. There is no philosophy needed to enjoy the panther, and its physicality is much more impressive than that of the hunger artist. The panther is a creature in its physical prime, in all its muscular glory—quite the contrast with the previous inhabitant of the cage. The circus, then, supplies what the audience demands, following the market forces that once made the hunger artist a popular act but have since forced him into irrelevance and, ultimately, death.