Franz Kafka is a famous German-language writer, who is widely admitted as one of the major figures of the twentieth-century world literature. He is famous for his novels and short stories focused on the themes of drama and isolation, opposition of a man and society that could not accept him. During his rather short life, Kafka wrote a number of works, which met with recognition from the public only after his death. One of such works was A Hunger Artist, a story he wrote in his declining years in 1922. The aim of this paper is to analyze symbolism in A Hunger Artist and to reveal a sense of this story.
In order to understand A Hunger Artist better, it is necessary to give a brief overview of Kafka’s works in general. Kafka is known for the themes of isolation, asceticism, spiritual poverty, and alienation. Talking about his fiction, Ryan states,
His characters constantly face failure and futility, and they struggle to survive in a world that is largely unfeeling and unfamiliar. This world, rendered with great detachment and detail, is one in which the fantastic is entirely normal, the irrational is rational, and the unreasonable seems reasonable (“Themes in Franz Kafka’s Work”).
Most of the main characters in Kafka’s works can be seen as prototypes of Kafka himself. They suffer in the world where they live and which cannot fit, and there is always no harmony and connection between a man and his surroundings. It is a specific “code” of human relations, the life model active for all forms and types of social being, and the writer here is a singer of aloofness, a mythmaker who kept eternal streaks of our world in his mind forever. Kafka’s works are an inharmonic world of human’s existence, and the reason of it could lie in inconsistency of people. Kafka’s human is a suffering, vulnerable creature, feeble and prostrate, living in the world full of evil, which power is boundless, and forced to obey his Fate that can come for him at any time.
The short story A Hunger Artist is not an exception of Kafka’s well-known style of writing. It is a part of a collection of stories with the same name, A Hunger Artist, the last book Kafka prepared for publication. It was published by Verlag Die Schmiede after the death of the author and included three other stories of him, all written between 1921 and 1924. It was first translated in English by Willa and Edwin Muir in 1948 and published by Schocken Books in the collection The Penal Colony.
A Hunger Artist is Kafka’s late short story telling about a man who pursues rather unusual art – the art of hunger. The art of hunger, however, is not strange but associates with other, simpler kinds of art. The main character of the story, the hunger artist, seeks for specific honors for what he does, but never gets the ones he needs exactly. He states, “No one could possibly watch the hunger artist continuously, day and night, and so no one could produce first-hand evidence that the fast had really been rigorous and continuous; only the artist himself could know that, he was therefore bound to be the sole completely satisfied spectator of his own fast” (Kafka 2). However, despite of such disregard to his audience, after its disappearance the hunger artist misses that times when he was watched, and here comes discordance. In such a way the author draws a parallel between the story and reality. People of art always seek for honors from their special spectators diving into work and often suffer being so enthusiastic that they do not notice society is not stable, it waves, and with the flow of time changes its courses and interests; things that were at the height of glory just yesterday today can be forgotten.
A Hunger Artist is a story full of symbolism. According to Christian traditions, on the fortieth day after death and all ordeals human’s soul goes to hell or heaven; it draws a parallel with forty days of hunger the main character goes through. A cage the hunger artist is locked in means a trap representing not only the way he tries to alienate himself from society but also his body where he is imprisoned, and a panther he is replaced with after his death – a generous animal body granted with juices of life, his antithesis. Story’s implication itself is very religious and reminds biblical theme of suffering and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The hunger artist dies in a cage in the throes of being not properly understood, and than in this cage appears a young panther, satisfied, noble, the one that seems like does not even miss freedom, the one able to carry freedom along; “somewhere in his jaws it seemed to lurk; and the joy of life streamed with such ardent passion from his throat that for the onlookers it was not easy to stand the shock of it” (Kafka 5). Even a big circus, where the hunger artist tries to find like-minded men but suffers a repulse, is symbolic, and the clock in the cage; it represents biological clock of the hunger artist and reminds about human’s body limitations. In his desire to make his art noble and lasting human achievement, the artist becomes sure that his powers for fasting will exist for all eternity. But presence of the clock reminds him about reality of the events and about the fact he, like other living creature, is subject to earthly demands and passage of time, and he cannot exist without food the same way he cannot exist outside of time. The clock symbolizes futility of the hunger artist in becoming immortal.
However, religious theme is not the only one I found in the story. As it was mentioned above, main characters in Kafka’s stories often are his prototypes. A Hunger Artist was written two years before the author’s death, and through his character here the same way as the hunger artist seeks his proper spectator Kafka express his desire to find a proper reader for his own works. Kafka became recognized postmortem, and a little amount of his works was published during his lifetime. That forced him suffering, and this suffer naturally found its reflection in Kafka’s works.
I like this story for its honesty. The same way as the hunger artist never finds his food most writers cannot find their readers and suffer from being the only one able to understand what they do and why. This is carried in last words of the main character, the ones he said just before his death:
“Because I have to fast, I can’t help it,” said the hunger artist. “What a fellow you are,” said the overseer, “and why can’t you help it?” “Because,” said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and speaking, with his lips pursed, as if for a kiss, right into the overseer’s ear, so that no syllable might be lost, “because I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else” (Kafka 5).
The hunger artist states that if he could find people who were able to understand his art, it would be enough for him to become happy. This simple fact is truthful both now and always; art makers are always in search for their noble spectators, not just for mass attention; however, rather often representatives of special challenging and new for its time kinds of arts have rough time with this and remain unacceptable. The same is relevant for writers.
In A Hunger Artist, in a contrast with the society the main character lives in, Kafka allows us, his readers, to understand not only his art but heroism also. The hunger artist is a hero who was able to dedicate himself to his art even despite the society that could not accept him. Hi lives in a cage, is stared at and paid, even if not well, waits for somebody who can fully understand him and his art, suffers from being forced to eat on the fortieth day of his fast and every time be on the edge of dying from this. The hunger artist lives in conditions where nobody can understand him; for people, eating is not only a necessity for supporting their lives, it’s also a pleasure, and they do not understand how somebody can dedicate his life to not eating, to being hungry, to fasting. The same non-admission explains why the hunger artist is not popular in a circus even despite the fact his cage is located in a people’s way to animal cages and he is often seen, and why, on a contrast, the panther put in the cage after his death, is; animal’s desires are simple and clear to society, and living with them for him is natural. In this naturalness, the panther is understood and accepted.
A hunger artist is upon the look for truth; it is a person fully devoted himself to his art, feeling himself comfortable in his fasting that meant for him verity, life, seek, and pain. However, the main problem is that, like many other characters of Kafka’s works and Kafka himself, the hunger artist craved for sharing his art, for being understood and accepted by those people who came to his cage and looked at him. At first, he gets his glory, not the one he wanted but glory of the masses, but then the interest of spectators decreases more and more; the performance palls, and neither he becomes understood the way he wanted nor remains a curious oddity a crowd wants to look at. The hunger artist is a brave hero, the one who is not afraid to do his art in the place and time where nobody can understand it, and he does continue to devote himself to his fasting even after everyone forgets about him, after he fades with a straw he is sitting at, even after circus workers remember about him only because they see a “perfectly good cage” (Kafka 5).
A Hunger Artist is one of the most feeling Kafka’s stories. It can seem unpleasant – image of a man who is that skinny others could count his ribs and then becomes skinner and skinner till almost full disappearing is not actually the thing everybody wants to see – but it is also deep and courageous; the author show his readers a hero, who is dedicated to his art and seems useless for society he lives in and other people. The most important thing is art, even if it comes together with pain, solitude, and non-acceptance. The main thing is to remain constant to your ideas and true to yourself.
Kafka, F. A Hunger Artist. PDF version.
“Themes in Franz Kafka’s Work.” LotsOfEssays.com, n. d. Accessed 18 Jan 2016.