There could hardly be a more contrasting creature to the hunger artist than the panther. The hunger artist is emaciated, weak, and denying himself bodily concerns, while the panther represents the force of nature’s vitality, muscular and primal. The panther’s “noble body furnished almost to bursting point with all it required seemed even to have brought its own freedom with it.” The most important word in this quote is “seemed”—yes, the panther embodies animal nature, but it is still imprisoned in the same cage that once held the hunger artist. Though the audience may be mesmerized by this display of sheer strength, the panther is trapped by the same things that held the hunger artist captive: the audience’s wish to be entertained and the impresario/circus’s aim to make money from their exhibit. On the one hand, the panther represents a life lived according to sensory desires. It seems happy enough to roam around its cage, especially now that the circus staff make sure to satisfy its huge appetite. Eating is the panther’s prime concern, in stark contrast to the hunger artist’s preoccupation with fasting, and so here, for now, it is fulfilled. On the other hand, it’s very unlikely that this majestic creature is going to continue being happy without the space in which to move around. And just because there is a crowd on one particular day, refusing to “budge,” doesn’t mean that they won’t get bored of the panther too (after which it will surely suffer a similar neglect as the hunger artist). In being trapped by its value as entertainment, the panther is prey to the same logic that brought about the hunger artist’s untimely end—if the audience gets bored, the panther will lose its place at the circus. Kafka, then, suggests that even a life lived according to more immediate, primal interests is no guarantee of meaning and purpose in the difficult, money-driven world of modern society.
The timeline below shows where the symbol The Panther appears in A Hunger Artist. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
A Hunger Artist
...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”... (full context)