Feed on

Franz Kafka’s short story, “The Hunger Artist,” tells the story of a man who fasts professionally, first as a traveling act in towns, then in a circus.  Before he dies in the circus, he tells the overseer that he fasts not because he enjoys it, but because he can’t find any food he actually likes (2).  A few lines in this story caught me off guard: “The longest period of fasting was fixed by his impresario at forty days, beyond that term he was not allowed to go, not even in great cities, and there was good reason for it, too. Experience had proved that for about forty days the interest of the public could be stimulated by a steadily increasing pressure of advertisement, but after that the town began to lose interest” (6).  It is really funny, in a dark sort of way.  When the reader encounters the first line, they think the “good reason” for the limit on the hunger artist’s is in the interest of his health.  It turns out, though, it’s just because the public loses interest after around forty days.

As I read this story, it became clear that the hunger artist requires recognition for nourishment, not food.  He isn’t able to find towns to put him on exhibit, so he joins the circus.  Visitors to the circus, however, run right past his cage in favor of seeing the animals.  Here in the circus, he fasts for longer than forty days; something he has always longed to do and thinks will get him more notice from circusgoers.  He doesn’t get any attention for it, since almost none of the visitors are interested in his “art,” and eventually dies.

The lively panther that is moved into his empty cage is such a contrast to the previous occupant.  “His noble body, furnished almost to the bursting point with all that it needed, seemed to carry freedom around with it too” (6).  The panther needs food in addition to the adoring crowd to flourish, while the hunger artist needs to fast for longer than he ever has before besides having an admiring audience.  One is becoming more alive; the other is dying.

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