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A Hunger Artist

Franz Kafka

Analysis of Major Characters

Character List

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

The Hunger Artist

The key to the hunger artist’s character lies in his identity as a professional faster, and at the center of his dedication to the perfection of his art is his ambition to achieve something that no one has ever achieved before. The hunger that the hunger artist willfully endures has a double meaning: it refers to his vocation of fasting as well as his insatiable yearning to defy human imagination by fasting indefinitely. Driven to renounce the nourishment that the rest of humanity embraces, the hunger artist literally lives in self-denial, forsaking comfort, companionship, and, most important, food, all of which are necessary to survival. Thus, the hunger artist’s devotion to his art constitutes a thinly masked death wish. Unwilling to respond to the needs he has as a human being, let alone as a living thing, the hunger artist makes death the culmination of his life’s work.

The hunger artist is doomed to be unhappy because he depends on others’ understanding to validate his performance, which is, by his own description, “beyond human imagination.” He feels deep disdain for his spectators, but because the nature of performance art requires spectators, the hunger artist is tied to the people he seeks to evade. He is, in a sense, a misfit in a showman’s position, and he comes to depend on the praise and wide-eyed amazement of his spectators as if they themselves were the food of life. When he experiences their suspicion, cynicism, and indifference, he becomes frustrated, unable to understand that being an artist often means being alienated from others. Only at the end of his life does the hunger artist seem to approach an understanding of the paradox that defines his existence. At this point, he no longer thinks that “the world [is] cheating him of his reward,” but rather that his aspirations could never be rewarded in the world in which he lives.

The Impresario

The impresario is part of a class of people who exploit art and artists for their own personal gain. Though the impresario is the hunger artist’s “partner in an unparalleled career,” a description that would suggest camaraderie between the two men, he behaves for the most part as a parasite would, fattening himself on the proceeds presumably given to the hunger artist for his performances. The impresario finds sustenance by capitalizing on another man’s starvation. In essence, the impresario commodifies the hunger artist’s suffering, when all the hunger artist aspires to do is be recognized for his efforts and achievements. The impresario’s career trajectory and business practices, when taken together, further indicate his parasitic nature. Just as the parasite is most effective when it does not drain its host completely, the impresario is most successful for shepherding the hunger artist back from the brink of death at the end of each performance. Finally, the impresario abandons his host when nourishment is no longer available.

While the impresario’s motivations for associating with the hunger artist are primarily self-centered, the impresario plays an important role in enabling the hunger artist to come close to reaching his goal. The impresario may behave as the hunger artist’s parasitic publicist, but he also functions as the hunger artist’s only connection to the people on whom he depends to recognize his artistic achievement. By taking responsibility for the hunger artist’s physical needs, even to the extent of force-feeding him, the impresario frees the hunger artist to focus solely on his aspiration to fast. Of the two, it is the impresario who most clearly perceives the disconnect between the hunger artist’s apparent death wish and need to be recognized by the masses. By remaining with the hunger artist until he no longer possibly can, the impresario is in some ways the hunger artist’s partner and devoted caretaker.

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