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Short Story: The Hunger Artist by Franz Kafka

By Bluestalking @Bluestalking

I really give short shrift to short stories, pun intended. The reason is the same I hear expressed by other readers: by the time you become deeply engaged with the plot and characters the story is over, leaving you wanting more. And that has been a frustration to me, as well, but I also know there are thousands of classic stories out there I'm virtually ignoring, leaving a big gap in my knowledge of literature. That gnaws at me, nerd that I am, as does my tendency to avoid poetry but that's a topic for a different day.

I'm doing better with short stories than I used to, though. Earlier this year I attended Booktopia in Oxford, MS. While there I bought a collection of stories by Kevin Brockmeier titled The View From the Seventh Layer. Kevin was one of the authors in attendance and he was just such a charming, antsy guy I was curious to read more stuff by him. Because he was such a wound-up bundle of energy I had a suspicion his short works would pack a lot of punch. And I was correct.






From the fantastical to the concrete, the range of this collection is breathtaking. It moves fluidly, finding beauty in the quiet, often overlooked corners of the world.


Reading this while passing time waiting for the train home from Memphis, I was able to sink back into each story after interruptions from noise, bathroom breaks, etc.; it was easier to put down and pick a short story up again than is usually the case with a novel. If I forgot a thread I could skip back with ease. I could even re-read from the beginning. Not a big deal with a short piece.

So I decided to hunt around the internet for a list of classic short stories I can easily find for free in etext format. There are loads of these so I just picked this one at random.  From here I can pop over to, or wherever the story's available (pretty much all of them are) and voilà, Bob's your uncle. Another reason the internet is a miracle.

For no particular reason I didn't start with the Bierce, jumping to Kafka instead. Just seemed like a Kafka sort of day, I guess. And since it's lunch time, hey, the title fits.

'A Hunger Artist' is - no surprise - a real downer of a story. It's about a circus sideshow character who literally starves himself, declaring what he's doing is art that's never been accomplished before, while it's clear what's going on is intense depression, a death wish. He eschews close companionship, along with all but the most perfunctory interaction with the world, allowing an obtuse public to witness his virtual suicide as an act of spectacle:


While for grown-ups the hunger artist was often merely a joke, something they participated in because it was fashionable, the children looked on amazed, their mouths open, holding each other’s hands for safety, as he sat there on scattered straw—spurning a chair—in black tights, looking pale, with his ribs sticking out prominently, sometimes nodding politely, answering questions with a forced smile, even sticking his arm out through the bars to let people feel how emaciated he was, but then completely sinking back into himself, so that he paid no attention to anything, not even to what was so important to him, the striking of the clock, which was the single furnishing in the cage, but merely looking out in front of him with his eyes almost shut and now and then sipping from a tiny glass of water to moisten his lips.


For months people find him amazing. The Impresario talked him up, the counter sign next to his cage updated daily to indicate how long he's been without food. How could anyone go so long without eating? People were mystified. And, to make sure this wasn't a trick, doubters kept watch over him at night, as well, assuring themselves the man was literally starving himself to death.

However, after a while the people became bored with him. He wasn't engaging; all he did was lie on a pile of straw in a cage, a clock in the cage ticking away every minute his body was slowly eating itself to stay alive. Having lost his appeal, he was sold off to another circus, where, once again, he was a spectacle. The starving man! How long can he refuse food? Soon, once again, people began passing over his cage to get to the animals, much more interesting and active attractions than a man losing all energy, interacting less and less.



Eventually, the circus "keepers" forget all about him. Poking around in the straw, they find him ready to breathe his last. Once he does, he's buried along with the straw that had lined his cage. His space is replaced immediately by a panther, a powerful, charismatic beast much more exciting than the man, whose "art" is immediately forgotten.



The story's significance:

From SparkNotes:


The hunger artist’s simple black attire is priestly, marking him as a holy man, as Christ was. Like Christ, he travels from town to town and performs miracles in front of spectators. Both the hunger artist and Christ live ascetically, renouncing the material and physical worlds that they believe stand in the way of spiritual enlightenment. The hunger artist and Christ are most similar in that after expending themselves in so-called service to others, they undergo a public display of death.

The twist in Kafka’s religious allegory is that the hunger artist’s spectators are indifferent to his suffering. This indifference suggests that faith and spirituality have no place in the modern world. Kafka seems to suggest that the hunger artist’s popularity, and, by extension, Christ’s, is just a trend.


My take:

Looking at this from a secular, 21st century standpoint, the story's highlighting the ongoing human love of spectacle, of watching someone else suffering. That's how human beings are wired. Otherwise, why do we care when public figures screw up, when their private mistakes are smeared all over the news? Why are "blooper" shows so popular, even when the people we're watching are seriously hurt? What makes that so funny?

It's an inherent selfishness specific to human beings. Suffering is interesting. It's why people "rubberneck" when there's a traffic accident, hoping to see an injured person, a blood-covered victim rolled into an ambulance, so they can tell all about it later. Seeing something awful makes a person the center of interest, a witness others can't wait to hear.

And, when the next spectacle happens we forget all about the previous one. That's old news! One celebrity's misfortune, even death, is pushed out by the next, in a long stream of endless suffering:


Experience had shown that for about forty days one could increasingly whip up a city’s interest by gradually increasing advertising, but that then the public turned away—one could demonstrate a significant decline in popularity.


Not that the hunger artist's motives are much better. From his standpoint it's "Look at me! I'm suffering!"

People became accustomed to thinking it strange that in these times they would want to pay attention to a hunger artist, and with this habitual awareness the judgment on him was pronounced. He might fast as well as he could—and he did—but nothing could save him any more. 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. The small table with the number of days the fasting had lasted, which early on had been carefully renewed every day, remained unchanged for a long time, for after the first weeks the staff grew tired of even this small task. And so the hunger artist kept fasting on and on, as he once had dreamed about in earlier times, and he had no difficulty at all managing to achieve what he had predicted back then, but no one was counting the days—no one, not even the hunger artist himself, knew how great his achievement was by this point, and his heart grew heavy. And when once in a while a person strolling past stood there making fun of the old number and talking of a swindle, that was in a sense the stupidest lie which indifference and innate maliciousness could invent, for the hunger artist was not being deceptive—he was working honestly—but the world was cheating him of his reward.


Didn't I say this story is a downer? It emphasizes some of the worst aspects of humanity, highlighting an ugly side we all have, to some extent or other. If you read the story you may have a different take but so much of this is blatant, inarguable. Then again, some works described as "darkly comic" come off anything but comical to me.

Rowling's Casual Vacancy is a good recent example of that. Rape, incest, drug addiction... Yeah, a laugh a minute. I don't think I found even a passing moment to be funny. So, maybe I'm missing something?



Kafka gleaned details for “A Hunger Artist” from the obscure real-life phenomenon of professional fasting, which was a popular form of entertainment in his time. The first well-known instance of fasting was by an American, Dr. Henry Tanner, who allegedly fasted under medical supervision for approximately forty days, much like the hunger artist in Kafka’s tale. Imitators soon followed, the most famous of which was Giovanni Succi, an Italian who staged fasts as public performances across Europe. Whereas Tanner seems to have fasted as an experiment, Succi turned fasting into a profession, performing for the public upward of thirty times.


So that's "A Hunger Artist." It's on the shorter side but sure has a lot to say. It's classic Kafka, dark and forcing the reader to consider the less savory side of humanity.

From the little I know about Kafka, he wasn't known as a depressive sort of man. Rather, his friends enjoyed joking around with him. I consider him more a realist, myself, inasmuch as his lack of faith in humanity comes through in his writing.

Then again, I just looked him up and saw the dreaded phrase "dark humor" attached to his name...

Okay. But I still say the basis of his story reflects what I said above. Perhaps it's exaggerated, occasionally tongue in cheek, but it reflects a very real aspect of who and what we are. Beneath the potential humor lies uncomfortable truth; it just softens the blow.


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