The Hunger Artist is a “pale figure in a black leotard with enormously protruding ribs.” He is caged, and he is very skinny, and his fasting is a major event for exhibition. Though he would never actually allow himself to eat, guards are assigned to make sure he doesn’t. He feels forsaken because of this, but overcomes the issue by sharing in conversation with them. He sustains the brunt of suspicion for being able to fast for so long, especially since the traditional “forty day” fast is the longest he’s allowed. This upsets him because he knows he can break this limit, as though it were a record to be beaten. When he’s done, his vitals are taken and two young ladies escort him to a meal. He is fed by spoon and great fanfare plays to signal the end of the event, where the mish-mash of a forty day crowd dissipates into nothing. After years of being the exhibit, the Hunger Artist no longer draws crowds, and he is forced to join the circus. He becomes a part of its side-show act and realizes that being among the animals, people are actually drawn more to the animals than they are to him. Eventually his work becomes an utter bore, and no one even counts the days by which he’s fasted anymore.
One day the cage of the Hunger Artist falls into obscurity until the circus manager happens to notice it. His employee pokes into the straw to learn that the artist is still there. The artist apologizes to the manager and explains the reason why he’s fasted for all his years, then dies. A panther replaces the cage and is fed the food of its choosing, and lives vibrantly before a crowd that is eager to watch.
Published in 1924, Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” displays more of the dry writing that is characteristic of his style. To read the story and then to pin meaning to the message is the medium for delving into the work, as to read this story for intrigue or suspense is simply out of the question. What rings clear is the Hunger Artist’s determination and ability in being able to endure great lengths of time without eating, yet there is a deeper meaning that lies at the heart of the reason for his behavior.
The Hunger Artist had been suffering from bouts of depression and is found nearly lifeless in his cage because he never found what he wanted to eat. The impact of this conclusion blindsides the reader, and yet the foundation for such an outcome is entirely plausible. The Hunger Artist starves himself to death because his inability to find the food he wants is similar to the depression that afflicts millions within the world. As the artist simply cannot eat, the depressive simply cannot get happy. The jubilant panther mirrors life’s common bystander to those afflicted by depression, jumping about and progressing through its days with avidity because the hole in its life is always filled with what it wants [to eat, metaphorically].
On another level of study, the depression insinuated and connected with the caged artist’s separation from society in part symbolizes the rigorous mental anguish of those afflicted with anorexia. The artist trivializes his own behavior and he follows it to the end of his life, and yet the message is anything but trivial, and even more so, it is realistic. That he can’t find what he wants is no excuse to waste away the entirety of life, yet in the mind of the anorexic, the dark tunnel of starvation seems the only answer that works, while the whole of life bypasses them for other affairs that seem more important. Kafka’s Hunger Artist presents the ultimate reality, sadly, but truly enough, where the end result of depriving the body of the essential nutrients needed for survival is simple and clear: death.