The cage in which the hunger artist performs represents his alienation from society. In this sense, it suggests the division between spectators and spectacle and the barrier that prevents understanding. Unable to understand the artistic perfection for which the hunger artist strives inside his cage, the spectators see a pathetic madman who may be cheating on his fast. As the hunger artist suggests, the spectators’ position outside the cage prevents them from truly appreciating the hunger artist’s feat. The cage also represents security, protecting the hunger artist from those who do not understand him. On his side of the cage, the hunger artist may lament his separation from others, but he made the choice to isolate himself.
The cage has symbolic meaning not only for the hunger artist’s relationship to others but also for the hunger artist himself. The cage represents the hunger artist’s body, in which he feels he is imprisoned. After all, his body and its physical needs are the ultimate constraint on his ambition to fast indefinitely. His body is a prison to him, and his effort to break out of the prison is actually a death wish. By fasting, the hunger artist attempts to step outside his skin, an act associated both with death and divinity. Because of the limitations of his body, the hunger artist can achieve the out-of-body experience he covets only by giving up his life. This achievement constitutes the hunger artist’s idea of artistic perfection.
The panther at the end of the story, with its power and liveliness, serves as the opposite of the hunger artist, who was powerless and, ultimately, lifeless. The hunger artist, who spent his life trying to achieve spiritual satisfaction, is replaced in the cage by the panther, which exhibits the uninhibited vitality of the physical world. The hunger artist lives in a state of constant want, for both food and recognition. The panther, on the other hand, wants for nothing. Though the panther is caged, it is so comfortable in its own skin that it projects an aura of freedom. The narrator claims that the panther’s freedom lurks somewhere in its jaws, which suggests that hunting and consumption are what allow it to be so unconflicted. Ultimately, the panther embodies the power and grace that comes from engaging with the material world, which explains why the people crowd around its cage. Its vitality has attracted the recognition that the hunger artist failed to win.
The clock in the cage represents the artist’s own biological clock and draws attention to his body’s limitations. Convinced that perfection in his art is a noble and lasting human achievement, the hunger artist labors under the misperception that his powers of starvation will exist for all eternity. The clock’s presence, however, exposes the hunger artist’s delusions by constantly reminding him of the reality of the present. Like all other animate beings, the hunger artist is subject to physical and earthly demands, including the passage of time. Just as he cannot exist without food, he cannot exist outside of time. The clock is a mockery of the hunger artist’s efforts to become immortal.