“A Hunger Artist” works as a parable—a story with a moral or principle. The morals that this parable illustrates are the dangers of pride and the artist’s ineffectiveness as an agent of social or cultural change. The hunger artist’s pride leads to his endless dissatisfaction and, ultimately, his death. Not content with the private knowledge that he has not cheated and has reached his goals, he wants mostly for others to recognize his successes. Pride keeps him from being fulfilled, even when he fasts for a longer period than ever before, because he succeeds out of the public eye. Because he can find no personal satisfaction without the validation of others, he dies having had no satisfaction at all. Not only has he been ineffective in changing his own fulfillment, he is also ineffective at changing others through his art. The hunger artist, in some ways, is not an artist at all, and his performance, although a form of entertainment, does or produces nothing of importance. His performance may seem to be a triumphant act, but this impression is provided mostly through the impresario’s spin. The hunger artist is an individual fighting against and triumphing over powerful physical forces and urges, but he has set up those obstacles himself—which cheapens the accomplishment.
None of the characters in “A Hunger Artist” have names, which adds to the parable-like quality. They are referred to by their job titles, and all their experiences are filtered through their roles. For example, the hunger artist experiences all of his sensations—frustration, dissatisfaction, desire—through the prism of his role as “the hunger artist,” rather than through the prism of a man, bachelor, or mystic. Without a name, and without more than this one dimension, the hunger artist could ultimately be anyone, and his trials provide universal lessons. The hunger artist is less an individual than an archetype (a universal figure), and his story of struggle, unfulfilled goals, and death is a warning for all mankind to let go of pride or face a life always lacking in satisfaction and contentment.