“A Hunger Artist” is a deeply philosophical text that is a prime example of Kafka’s overall approach to his literature. As with many of his other stories, interpretations of the text vary widely, and for good reason: Kafka deliberately creates tales that are almost fable-like, except that, unlike the typical fable that has a clear moral, the “point” of Kafka’s stories are rarely obvious. For Kafka, life is a set of unresolvable questions, and no one way of living can provide solid, tangible answers to the absurdities of existence. The hunger artist pursues some approaches towards finding meaning in life, while his audience and manager take an entirely different approach altogether.
The hunger artist is clearly concerned with the greatness of his achievements. He feels that if he can only reach a certain length of days in a fast he will reach the height of his craft. That is, as with many people in life, he strives to better himself (in one very specific area) with the ultimate goal of being—and being recognized as—the best. He prides himself on his strength of will, on the superiority of his fasting ability: “he had never yet, not after any of his feats of starvation—that people had to concede—left his cage of his own free will.” He much prefers being watched by those warders who guard him very closely, shining their torchlights on him throughout the night, and loves nothing more than demonstrating how different he is from them: “What made him happiest of all was when the morning came and a lavish breakfast was brought up to them at his expense, on which they flung themselves.”
Though the artist’s skill and craft mark him as different from the average person, the story makes it clear that it’s not that simple. Firstly, the hunger artist is dependent on others recognizing his achievement. He is always mindful, therefore, of his popularity and how he is being viewed and perceived. Secondly, he feels that the only way to continue to have meaning is to achieve even more, to give even more of himself to his craft. Of course, because he is a hunger artist, the outcome of such continued achievement is stark: he eventually achieves so much starvation that he dies, and he does so without any audience at all. The quest for achievement, the story seems to suggest, can give one a sense of meaning, but that sense is fleeting and ultimately self-devouring.
The hunger artist also seeks meaning in another way that has traditionally been seen as more profound and authentic than the quest for achievement. He denies himself, and more importantly denies his body and his physical needs. In fact, fasting is often associated with rejection of the material and superficial, and as a means to achieve spiritual understanding of oneself and the world. In other words, it is often seen as a route to finding a higher meaning. It is no coincidence that the hunger artist’s fasting performances last forty days. That length of time connects the hunger artist’s fast most clearly to Jesus’s fast of forty days in the desert. During that fast, Jesus was tempted again and again by Satan. After Jesus refused all temptations, Satan left him, and Jesus returned to Galilee to begin his ministry. In other words, Jesus fasted, denied his body, and found the truth in himself and the world such that he felt ready to begin to preach. The hunger artist, too, seeks a truth and meaning beyond what society has to offer. It frustrates him that his manager won’t let him go beyond the forty days and prove his greatness—he thinks that going beyond that limit would be both a source of pride and help him find true meaning. When he does eventually fast for more than forty days, though, after essentially being forgotten in a cage at the circus, he dies without any revelation at all, having long ago lost the ability to keep track of the length of his fast.
There are glimpses of other ways of life in the story. The card-players, the family that see the hunger artist at the circus, the manager—all of these have a different set of more immediate and less lofty concerns than the hunger artist. They fail to comprehend his total dedication, and live life without a desperate search for meaning or great achievement. The reader, then, is left with no easy moral—were the hunger-artist’s efforts totally in vain and pointless, or is he the only character with a true sense of purpose? Kafka deliberately leaves this question unresolved, because for him that is a closer representation of actual life. But the text itself is an examination of its own attempt to generate meaning—to represent life—further strengthening the sense that instead of an answer there is only a question—but that there is meaning and value in asking the question, even without hope of an answer.
The Meaning of Existence ThemeTracker
The Meaning of Existence Quotes in A Hunger Artist
He much preferred those invigilators who sat right in front of his bars, who were not content with the dim night-light in the hall, but aimed at him the beams of electric torches that the manager had left at their disposal…What made him happiest of all was when the morning came and a lavish breakfast was brought up to them at his expense, on which they flung themselves with the healthy appetite of men who had spent an entire night without rest.
No one was capable of spending every day and every night with the hunger-artist as an invigilator without a break, and therefore no one could know from the direct evidence of his own senses whether the hunger artist had starved himself without a break, without a lapse; only the hunger-artist himself was in a position to know that, only he therefore could be the spectator completely satisfied by his own hunger.
He had never yet—that people had to concede—left his cage of his own free will. The maximum period of starvation had been set by the manager at forty days, he permitted no longer stints than that, not even in major cities, and for a very good reason. He had learned from experience that by gradually intensified publicity the interest of a city could be kept alive for forty days, but at that point the public failed, there was a perceptible drop in the level of interest.
...the hunger artist starved himself as he had once dreamed of doing, and he succeeded quite effortlessly as he had once predicted, but no one counted the days, no one knew how great his achievement was, not even the hunger artist himself, and his heart grew heavy. And if once in a while a passer-by stopped, and mocked the old calendar and said it was a swindle, that was the most insulting lie that indifference and native malice could have come up with.
“I always wanted you to admire my starving,” said the hunger artist. “We do admire it,” said the overseer placatingly. “But you’re not to admire it,” said the hunger artist. “All right, then we don’t admire it,” said the overseer, “why should we not admire it?”