Born in Prague in 1883 to a Jewish father who excelled in business, Franz Kafka, along with his three sisters, had a comfortable childhood. He earned a doctorate of law degree by the time he was twenty-three and began working for a government agency, where he distinguished himself by publishing reports about worker safety that appeared in professional journals. He retired as Senior Secretary and was awarded a medal of honor for his contribution to the establishment and management of hospitals and rest homes. To his friends, Kafka was warm and charming. He had several girlfriends and two serious relationships, but he never married. Instead, Kafka devoted his life to writing, publishing his first story in 1909. He was well known among the small literary circles of Prague, and he often read his stories out loud to groups of friends. Kafka continued writing until his death at forty-one from tuberculosis in 1924, correcting the final proofs of the story “A Hunger Artist” while on his deathbed.
In the world of literature, Kafka holds a coveted distinction. Like William Shakespeare and George Orwell, he is one of the few authors whose name has become an integral part of the vocabulary used to characterize not only other literature but also the workings of the world around him. The term “Kafkaesque” has come to describe a nightmarish atmosphere resulting from pervasive, sinister, impersonal forces; feelings of guilt, fear, and loss of identity; and the sense of evil that permeates the logic of ruling powers. Much of Kafka’s writing brims with this menacing, uneasy quality, and his protagonists are nearly always confined by alienation and anxiety. When reading Kafka’s writing, we enter a world in which nothing is certain and in which every bad turn feels like the product of a conspiracy.
Although Kafka’s body of work was the product of a unique, dynamic mind, it can also be traced to the personal unease Kafka felt during his seemingly peaceful life. In spite of his eccentricities, Kafka was a man of his times, and his experiences as a Jew in Prague at the turn of the twentieth century led him to distrust authority, a feeling that surfaced in his writing. Kafka’s Prague was a civilized, cosmopolitan European city, but like most other cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was often hostile to Jews. Kafka lived in a ghetto all his life, segregated from mainstream society, and he felt disenfranchised by the faceless Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy. In his fiction, Kafka conveyed the horror he felt for a society that was highly organized but that also randomly assigned guilt and suffering. Kafka was in some ways a prophet, and his writing predated Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany, where he lost his sisters and final girlfriend, by several years.
At the center of Kafka’s literary vision is his relationship with his father. A brusque, domineering man, Hermann Kafka came to Prague and established a successful merchant business, sacrificing much of his identification with Judaism to do so. In his diaries, Kafka wrote that his father was too proud of his assimilation, and Kafka devoted himself to Jewish studies as if to rebel against his father. Aside from religious and cultural differences, Kafka’s relationship with his father also suffered from the fact that they lived together in close quarters for much of Kafka’s life. Hermann was surely insensitive to Kafka’s feelings and indifferent to his literary ambitions. The effect on Kafka was drastic. Issues of tyrannical patriarchy abound in Kafka’s works, and many of Kafka’s protagonists, like Kafka himself, remain irredeemably in the wrong when confronted with such authority. In many ways, Kafka’s relationship with his father was the defining influence on the harried, claustrophobic characters that make up the world of his fiction.
Like all of Kafka’s fiction, “A Hunger Artist” joins ordinary life with eerie situations that seem to exist only in the realm of fantasy. Critics have pointed out that “A Hunger Artist” has many different interpretations—there is no simple, concrete message for readers to take away. Kafka must have realized the story’s importance: it was one of the few pieces of fiction he thought worthy of saving when he directed his friend and editor Max Brod to destroy all his life’s work when he died. Fortunately, Brod did not follow Kafka’s instructions.