Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” Analysis
“A Hunger Artist” is a short story focusing on a performer who sits in a cage and refuses to eat for forty days while the viewers observe his efforts. This short story is dystopian because it shows the degradation of society’s perception of art, which should be a way of expressing oneself. The artist himself takes pride in his suffering, seeking both separation from the public and their admiration for his talent. Instead, people watch hungry artists starve themselves for many days, and some view these performances as a joke while others see them as fraud. In “A Hunger Artist,” the protagonist desires the public’s attention and wants to achieve it by any means while being proud of himself and taking joy in his ability to starve and watch the viewers eat breakfast in front of his cage.
A link between this short story and a dystopian theme is the theme of hunger. In his story, Kaffka shows the artist’s hunger as a choice, and he fasts because it is fascinating to the public. On the other hand, people perceive the artists’ efforts as an attraction and entertainment, and some even question whether he actually fasts or cheats. Dystopia can be defined as an opposition to utopia, which is an ideal place. Hence, ideally, the artists should be praised for their artistic expression, and the public should watch performances they admire and not the ones they view as a joke. However, in this short story, art is shown as a means of getting the public’s attention by any means.
Other elements of this short story that support its dystopian nature are dehumanization and the plot hinting at the issues with social trends. In Kafka’s story, the citizens are dehumanized because they watch a person in a cage starve for 40 days and perceive it as entertainment, despite it being clear that the artist may die or damage his health in the process. Moreover, the protagonist helps the reader understand that there is something wrong with the way that these people view performance art. For example, the artist is put in a cage, and he is constantly watched by three butchers, who have to make sure that he does not eat. Hence, the setting of the performance plays a vital role in highlighting how one hand, the perception of art is flawed, while on the other hand, how the artist uses this troubling social trend to get attention from the public.
The primary literary device that Kafka uses in his story is the protagonist’s character. The artist has a particular viewpoint of his craft and is annoyed by the fact that he is ordered to starve for only 40 days, while at the end of the perforce, he is forced to eat (Kafka). Evidently, Kafka shows how the artist takes pride in his ability to fast and wants to prove that he is capable of not eating for longer than his manager requests. However, at the end of this story, he confesses that his fasting was merely a result of him not being able to find the food he liked (Kafka). Arguably, this confession defeats the artistic purpose of showing a person starve themselves since, for the artist, this was not difficult to do. As a result, one can conclude that the artist figure represents individuals who cannot find joy in their lives and attempt to use their misery as a way of drawing the attention of the general public. This attention he receives from the views is important to him since he prides himself on his abilities, especially when he watches the viewers eat breakfast (Kafka). The public, however, loses interest quickly, as shown by the attention that the artist’s replacement, a panther, has gained.
Notably, the protagonist of Kafka’s short story is static since he does not undergo any significant changes over the course of the plot. He remains devoted to his talent of being without food for a prolonged period of time and eventually dies from starvation. Additionally, he is a vivid character since his main characteristic is his talent. Kafka writes that the artist “was happiest, however, when morning came, and a lavish breakfast was brought for them at his own expense,” which describes the moment when the viewers were eating breakfast near his cage. This quote further highlights the artist’s fascination with his ability not to eat. However, towards the end of this story, the public is no longer fascinated by this, and he has to work in a circus. Without the attention of the people, he loses interest in his work and eventually starves himself to death. Again, the artist’s death is another proof that his performances are a way of attracting attention and not something that has an artistic meaning.
Although Kafka’s life differed from the one people have today in terms of comfort and communication mediums, his parallel between the people who use something damaging to their health as famine is in parallel with what children do on social media. For example, recently, there has been a trend of a “Tide Pod Challenge” where people filmed themselves eating detergent and posted these clips on YouTube or TikTok. According to Bever, this is only one of the many challenges that children participate in online, and in 2018 at 220 individuals were hospitalized after eating the detergent. Although similarly to public fasting, eating Tide pods does not have an artistic value, since none of the “artists” use this act to prove a point or attract attention to a social issue, it showed a disturbing trend of people seeking attention by any means possible.
Although dystopian stories use exaggeration to prove a point that the current social trends are dangerous and potentially harmful, this exaggeration is merely a literary device. The underlying theme is what the reader should focus on, and both “A Hunger Artist” and the “Tide Pod Challenge” show the disturbing evidence of people viewing self-harm as entertainment. The audience’s fascination is apparent since Kaka writes that “during the final days there were people with subscription tickets who sat all day in front of the small barred cage.” Moreover, Kafka writes that adults, unlike children, were no longer fascinated by these performances and viewed them as a joke.
Overall, this paper explores the dystopian themes and literary devices used by Kafka in his short story “A Hunger Artist.” This short story is an illustration of social degradation since people choose to see performances of hungry artists whose talent is starving themselves. The artist himself is interested in showing his ability to starve only to attract the public’s attention, which becomes evident after he loses interest in life when working at a circus. One can parallel Kafka’s story with the “Tide Pod Challenge” on social media, where children eat detergent to attract views.
Bever, Lindsay. “Teens Are Daring Each Other To Eat Tide Pods. We Don’t Need To Tell You That’s A Bad Idea.” The Washington Post. 2018.
Kafka, Frantz. “A Hunger Artist.” Kafka Online. n.d.