A Hunger Artist

by: Franz Kafka

The Hunger Artist

Characters 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.