The protagonist, a hunger artist who experiences the decline in appreciation of his craft, is an archetypical creation of Kafka: an individual marginalized and victimized by society at large. The title of the story has been translated also to "A Fasting Artist" and "A Starvation Artist".
A Hunger Artist explores the familiar Kafka themes of death, art, isolation, asceticism, spiritual poverty, futility, personal failure and the corruption of human relationships.
There is a sharp division among critical interpretations of "A Hunger Artist". Most commentators concur that the story is an allegory, but they disagree as to what is represented. Some critics, pointing to the hunger artist's asceticism, regard him as a saintly or even Christ-like figure. In support of this view they emphasize the unworldliness of the protagonist, the priest-like quality of the watchers, and the traditional religious significance of the forty-day period. Other critics insist that A Hunger Artist is an allegory of the misunderstood artist, whose vision of transcendence and artistic excellence is rejected or ignored by the public. This interpretation is sometimes joined with a reading of the story as autobiographical. According to this view, this story, written near the end of Kafka's life, links the hunger artist with the author as an alienated artist who is dying.
The moral of the story, says literature critic Maud Ellmann, is that it is not by food that we survive but by the gaze of others and "it is impossible to live by hunger unless we can be seen or represent doing so".
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About the Author
Date of Birth:July 3, 1883
Date of Death:June 3, 1924
Place of Birth:Prague, Austria-Hungary
Place of Death:Vienna, Austria
Education:German elementary and secondary schools. Graduated from German Charles-Ferdinand University of Prague.
Read an Excerpt
From A Little Woman: She is a little woman; quite slim by nature, she is tightly bound; I always see her in the same dress, it is made from a yellowish gray fabric that in a certain way resembles the color of wood, and is decorated with tassels or certain buttonlike fringes of the same color; she never wears a hat, her dull blond hair is smooth and not messy, although she wears it very loosely. Although she is tightly bound, she is quite flexible, and she exaggerates this flexibility; she likes to put her hands on her hips, and, surprisingly quickly, turn her upper body sideways with a single movement. I can only reproduce the impression that her hand makes on me by saying that I have never seen a hand in which the fingers are as sharply divided from one another as hers. However, her hand is in no way an anatomical peculiarity; it is a completely normal hand.
This little woman is very unhappy with me, there is always something about me that she finds objectionable, some injustice is always being done to her because of me, I annoy her at every step; if it were possible to divide life up into the smallest possible pieces and judge each piece separately, there is no doubt that every little piece of my life would annoy her. I have often wondered why I annoy her so much; it could be that everything about me contradicts her sense of beauty, her sense of justice, her habits, her traditions, her hopes; such contrary natures exist, but why does she let it cause her so much suffering? There is no relationship between us that would cause her to suffer because of me. She need only decide to view me as a complete stranger since this is after all what I am and since I would have nothing against such a decision she need only decide to forget my existence, which I never have and never would force upon her and all her suffering would obviously be over. In this I take no account of myself or of the fact that her behavior makes me uncomfortable, I ignore this because I recognize that this discomfort is nothing compared to her suffering. Of course I am completely aware that it is not a loving suffering; it has nothing to do with improving me, especially since everything she objects to in me is not of such a nature that it might prevent my success. But my success does not worry her either, what worries her is precisely her personal interest, namely, to take revenge for the torment that I cause her, and to prevent the torment that threatens to come from me in the future. I once tried to show her the best possible way of putting an end to this incessant annoyance, but in so doing I caused such an outburst of rage that I will never repeat the attempt.