A man who is known only as “the hunger artist” and fasts for a living travels from town to European town with the impresario (his manager). In each town, the hunger artist chooses a public location and puts himself on display in a locked, straw-lined cage, where he fasts for periods of up to forty days. In the hunger artist’s heyday, people from all over the surrounding area come to witness his performances. Children especially are drawn to him, and when the hunger artist is not hypnotically withdrawn in the cage, he talks to them and answers their questions with a smile. The adults also avidly monitor the hunger artist’s progress, but they generally do so out of suspicion that the hunger artist is sneaking food. To the hunger artist’s frustration, the townspeople assign men, usually butchers, to ensure that the hunger artist does not eat during the night. Even more annoying to the hunger artist, however, is that these men deliberately turn a blind eye to the hunger artist as if to allow him to steal a bite of food. The hunger artist sings to prove that he is not eating, but the people think he has simply mastered the art of eating and singing simultaneously.
Although the hunger artist is famous, he is perpetually unhappy. Because of the townspeople’s incredulity, the hunger artist realizes that only he can be truly satisfied with his feats of self-denial. The hunger artist also feels constrained by the fasting limits imposed on him. Although the hunger artist finds fasting easy and can go much longer than forty days, the impresario always cuts the performance short because the spectators tend to lose interest. Furthermore, the ritual in which the impresario forces the hunger artist to break the fast is humiliating and unpleasant. First, doctors enter the cage to report the hunger artist’s condition, which is announced with a megaphone. Next, two ladies chosen from the crowd try to help the hunger artist out of his cage. Unfailingly, the hunger artist objects, and the impresario intrudes to make a show of how frail the hunger artist has become. By the time the ritual is over, the hunger artist has been force-fed and the crowd moved by the hunger artist’s seemingly desperate condition. In truth, however, the hunger artist is miserable only because he knows he could have fasted longer and that his supposed fans actually hate him.
The hunger artist goes on living in fame and quiet dissatisfaction, becoming hostile only when the occasional person theorizes that the root of his melancholy might be the fasting itself. At this suggestion, the hunger artist rattles his cage like a beast and can be calmed only by the impresario, who plays up the hunger artist’s misery to the people by showing photographs of him withering away. Though these photos in reality capture the hunger artist looking wretched because he is being forced from the cage against his will, the impresario advertises it all as the effect of the fasting itself. The impresario’s gesture never fails to cow the hunger artist, who sinks in submission, back into his straw, forever misunderstood.
Professional fasting eventually goes into decline, as audiences develop a taste for newer, more exciting forms of entertainment. The hunger artist and impresario dissolve their partnership, but because the hunger artist is too old to take up a new profession, he attempts to ride out the trend against fasting in the hope that it reverses itself. He joins a circus and becomes a sideshow, placed at the entrance of the menagerie of animals and other curiosities. As a result of his placement, the hunger artist is ignored by the throngs of people who have come for the livelier attractions inside. The hunger artist is nonexistent, save for a few stragglers who look at him as an anachronism. Left alone, the hunger artist finally exceeds his fasting record, although there is no way to tell exactly how long he has fasted because the circus attendants forget to change the sign on which his daily total appears. The hunger artist wastes away in his cage, unnoticed and unappreciated.
Many days pass before a circus overseer notices what seems to be an unused cage. Upon closer inspection, the overseer discovers the hunger artist buried in the straw, near death. Thinking the hunger artist insane, the overseer humors the hunger artist in his last words. The hunger artist asks to be forgiven, explaining that he has wanted only to be admired by everyone. When the overseer assures him that everyone does admire him, the hunger artist tells the overseer that they shouldn’t, confessing that he has fasted only because in life he could not find food that he liked. With these words, the hunger artist dies. The circus attendants bury him with his straw and restock the cage with a young panther, which is unlike the hunger artist in nearly every way. Stalking about in its cage, the panther brims with life, feeding hungrily and expressing freedom and vitality. In no time, it becomes a major draw for the circus, and crowds of people edge close to the cage in breathless excitement.