In “A Hunger Artist,” the hunger artist’s troubled relationship with his spectators suggests that the artist exists apart from society and must therefore be misunderstood. In the hunger artist’s case, being an artist means cutting oneself off from the world, a conclusion reflected in the hunger artist’s conscious choice to sequester himself in a cage. This physical separation of hunger artist and spectator mirrors the spiritual separation of the individual artistic ego and public will. This gap in mindset leads to a critical gap in understanding. Set apart from others, only the hunger artist realizes the importance of his ambitions and accomplishments, and only he knows that he is not cheating. The further the hunger artist goes in pursuit of perfection, as he does in the circus, the further away he moves from the understanding of the people for whom he performs. The artist will always be separated from society because the qualities that distinguish him as an “artist” and are worth preserving are the ones that ensure he will never be understood.
Although the hunger artist’s fierce pride in his art enables him to improve his fasting, it ultimately stops him from reaching his goals because it hurts his public appeal and connection to others. He looks on his emaciated frame and protruding ribcage with vanity, deeming them badges of honor, but his pitiful, grotesque body repulses the women who initially want to carry him from his cage at the end of his fast. In this case, his starved body—which is the manifestation of his pride—is the thing that ensures he will never be loved and admired by the public. Pride turns the hunger artist away from others and into himself, and he reinforces his isolation by imprisoning himself in a cage and meditating intensely. In the end, pride guarantees the hunger artist not fame and transcendence, but obscurity.
The hunger artist relishes in his hunger throughout the story, hoping that it will lead to spiritual satisfaction, but in the end, his fasting leaves him empty both physically and spiritually. The hunger artist refuses food, but his self-denial reveals his need for a different kind of nourishment: public recognition and artistic perfection. Hunger, for both physical and spiritual nourishment, is the subject of his performance. Beyond the performance, however, the hunger artist yearns only for what the physical world, including his audience, cannot give him. Fasting becomes the “easiest thing in the world” for the hunger artist, but what he struggles to do without is the spiritual nourishment that remains out of his reach.
While he performs with the impresario, the hunger artist never succeeds in fasting indefinitely, and this failure results in constant dissatisfaction. But the hunger artist fails to understand that the spiritual satisfaction he yearns for relies on the physical life he believes that he must give up. In renouncing his claims on life, the hunger artist makes himself incapable of achieving spiritual satisfaction. The panther that replaces him in the cage has a lust for life, satisfied “to the bursting point with everything that it needed.” Even though it is trapped in a cage, the panther seems to need nothing because, in essence, it lacks nothing. The hunger artist dies empty, having given up everything and still attaining none of his goals.
The Europe of the hunger artist’s time enjoys spectacle as a form of entertainment, which suggests that the society is one of mass culture and that individuals like the hunger artist are ruled by the crowd. The hunger artist turns the intensely private act of fasting into a spectacle and constantly seeks the public’s approval. He is not content with knowing that he has achieved feats of fasting; he needs to know that others believe that he has not cheated. Knowledge of his own greatness is worthless because only the crowd’s recognition can validate the hunger artist’s effort. Only by becoming a spectacle does the hunger artist become real. Ironically, the hunger artist’s reliance on spectators is why he never breaks his fasting records while he is famous: the public always forcibly ends the spectacle after forty days. By attempting to join the circus, the hunger artist is trying to ally himself with an even greater spectacle, but he falls out of the limelight. He fasts longer than ever, but there is no sense of victory because his final triumph is out of the public eye.
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.