Short Story #7: The Hunger Artist by Franz Kafka
Title: The Hunger Artist
Author: Franz Kafka
Short Story #7 out of 365
Rating: 4 (out of 5 stars)
Source: The World's Greatest Short Stories, Dover Thrift Edition, edited by James Daley. The story can also be found on this website.
SummaryHunger artists are people whose art is their ability to fast for long periods of time. In this story, the unnamed hunger artist is considered the finest hunger artist to have ever lived. However, his true talent for being a hunger artist is undermined by the skepticism of the spectators as well as by the impressario who always limited the fasting to 40 days. The decision for this is because after 40 days, the audience fades away and the spectacle doesn't make as much money. Eventually, the demand for hunger artists fade and he finds himself joining up with a circus. He's happy about this because he is no longer inhibited by an artificial endpoint but equally disappointed because he is between the big tent performances and the animal cages. Therefore, people pass by in a rush and pay little or no attention to him. Time passes and he continues to fast. However, people (including himself) has stopped keeping count. Eventually, he is forgotten until a circus manager requests to clean the cage and use it for something else. It's upon the cleaning of the straw that they find the shrunken hunger artist, barely clinging to life. At this moment, he dies, having completed his most successful art work but not before the reader learns that fasting was easy for him because he had never found a food that he loves and thus to go without food was not hard.
ReflectionIt's Kafka and that means it's bound to be a bit strange and awkward. But that's also the beauty of Kafka. In this story what I marveled at was the hunger artist's consternation in the lack of true appreciation of his work: "For, in fact, no one was in a position to spend time watching the hunger artist every day and night without interruption, so no one could know, on the basis of his own observation, whether this was a case of truly continuous, flawless fasting. The hunger artist himself was the only one who could know that and, at the same time, the only spectator capable of being completely satisfied with his own fasting." But equally important, the hunger artist's unhappiness with his art because it was not truly hard for him (as we learn later--it was easy not to eat because he never loved any food).
This question of doing something well even if we have no passion for it is of course at the center of many of our decisions and challenges. Do we keep at something we're really great at--even if we're not in love with it? What if that prevents us from finding something (or someone) we truly love? Within "The Hunger Artist", it seems to think it a failure to pursue just that what you think you are good at and not that which you love since the hunger artist is stuck being a hunger artist because he knows nothing else and can't move in any other direction. He dies succeeding but with no true sense of what he's done (since he's forgotten how many days he's gone without eating).
For a full listing of all the short stories in this series, check out the category 365 Short Stories a year.
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