“The Hunger Artist” is one of Franz Kafka’s most well-known short stories. It’s about a man who is a hunger artist—that is, he sits in a cage and fasts for upwards of forty days as crowds walk by to watch and admire his feat. The story is often viewed as an allegory, though interpretations vary. In my opinion, Kafka’s story of the hunger artist is a metaphor for Kafka’s own life as a “starving artist.”
“I hate everything which is not connected with literature. Conversations bore me, paying calls bores me, the joys and sorrows of my relatives bore me insufferably. Conversations remove the importance, the seriousness, and the truth from everything I think.”
“Everything that is not literature bores me and I hate it, for it upsets me or handicaps me, even if this sounds presumptuous.”(Quotes from Kafka’s diaries and letters)
Kafka devoted his life to literature at the expense of romantic relationships, financial success, and even his own health (he died at the age of 40). He sacrificed those other facets of life to spend time along thinking and writing. He valued solitude because he needed it to write.
“I must be alone a great deal. All that I have accomplished is the result of solitude.”
“I need solitude for my writing; not ‘like a hermit’ — that wouldn’t be enough — but like a dead man.”
“The Hunger Artist” isn’t really about the hunger artist himself—or about Kafka the writer—the story is about the public’s perception of the hunger artist—or of Kafka the writer.
Public appreciation for the hunger artist comes and goes throughout the story, which correlates to life as a writer or any other kind of artist. Some writers are successful and others are quite literally starving artists. Kafka saw how Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the most brilliant and original writers of philosophy, failed to be recognized as such during his lifetime. The same went for Vincent van Gogh and his paintings. Even successful artists are never always successful—their popularity rises and falls over time.
In Kafka’s case he is beloved today—almost a hundred years after his death in 1924—but he was a starving artist throughout his entire life. He never garnered any success for his writing during his lifetime, and, thinking he was a failure in that regard, demanded that his friend Max Brod burn his manuscripts, diaries, and letters upon his death. Thankfully for us, Brod disobeyed Kafka’s wishes. Though, ironically, “The Hunger Artist” was one of the few stories that Kafka permitted Brod to spare, which is not ironic at all once you understand the story.
Does Kafka’s complete lack of writing success during his lifetime mean he wasted his life sacrificing everything for literature? That question is central to the meaning of “The Hunger Artist.” To Kafka the answer is firmly no, he did not waste his life by devoting it to an art that no one appreciated. Even if he would never eventually receive praise after his death, he was not writing for the audience (then or in the future)—he was writing for himself.
The core message of “The Hunger Artist” is conveyed at the end of the story when an overseer speaks to the hunger artist, shriveled up inside his cage long after everyone else forgot he was even in there.
“I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” said the hunger artist.
“We do admire it,” said the overseer, affably.
“But you shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist.
“Well then we don’t admire it,” said the overseer, “but why shouldn’t we admire it?”
“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 is speaking to the glorification of the starving artist, or the propensity for some audiences to admire an artist for the sacrifices they make in life. As in Kafka’s case, they may think it must have been difficult for him to give up on romance or a lucrative career in order to pursue his artistic life—to devote himself so fully to a type of art that isn’t commercially rewarding. But Kafka is saying, no, it wasn’t difficult for him at all—it wasn’t even a choice.
“I am nothing except literature… I cannot and will not be anything else.”
Kafka didn’t desire a traditional job or family life, so giving up those things was not a sacrifice for him as it may have been for others. Literature was always the most important thing to Kafka. If he found another job worth doing, or if he found true love, perhaps he would have forgone his writing career to pursue those things—but they were never truly options for him. He did not sacrifice love and wealth for his literature; to pursue love and wealth would have been the true sacrifice at the expense of his writing.
As for the type of literature Kafka wrote, that wasn’t a sacrifice either. He didn’t consciously choose to write fiction that would be non-commercial; he couldn’t help but write deeply personal, psychological and philosophical stories that did not have a wide commercial appeal. If he could write mainstream popular hits, perhaps he would have. But these oddly dark and disturbing stories were all he could write. They were so unlike anything else being written that they could only be described as “Kafkaesque.”
The ultimate message of “The Hunger Artist” is that Kafka was not trying to be Kafkaesque in his writing. After all, how can Kafka be anything other than Kafkaesque?