Franz Kafka

A Hunger Artist

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A Hunger Artist Summary

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A Hunger Artist is a collection of short stories by eminent modernist author Franz Kafka. First published posthumously just a few months after Kafka’s 1924 death, the first English translation appeared many years later, in 1948. The four tales that comprise this volume abound in Kafka’s signature style: isolated heroes, dark and disconcerting settings, and a strong undercurrent of existential absurdity.

The title story chronicles the experiences of a hunger artist, a person who publicly fasts for the entertainment of others. These acts tour Europe, and, at one point, they are enormously popular. The events charted in this story center on a time when hunger artist acts plummet in popularity before dropping off the cultural radar entirely.

The unnamed hunger artist starves himself for a staggering forty days. In his heyday, he draws huge crowds, who come to watch him in his cage day and night—not eating. Then, after the requisite time passes, he sells out large theaters, with audiences flocking to watch him leave his cage and eat his first meal after the fast.

Eventually, the hunger artist, and those like him, is no longer able to attract the paying audiences he once did. His impresario/manager takes him on a tour of Europe in the hope of generating new interest, but no one wants to come to watch him starve himself. He fires his manager and joins the circus instead.

However, life in the circus is much different than life as a bona fide hunger artist. Gone is the glamor, the fame, the mystery, the daring of it all. Now, he is nothing more than a sideshow freak. The circus owners display his cage between the main tents and the zoo, and though the crowds must pass his cage, hardly anyone takes notice of him.

With no audience to admire him and no manager to monitor him, the hunger artist’s starvation stretches far beyond the normal forty days. Then, his cage appears empty, drawing the concern of the circus manager. When the circus manager enters the cage, he finds the hunger artist buried in dirty straw and on the verge of death. The hunger artist beckons the circus manager to come close and whispers his last words: He asks for forgiveness, saying that no one should admire him because the only reason he doesn’t eat is that he can’t find food that he likes. The hunger artist dies. The circus manager covers his body with straw before putting a panther in the same cage. The circus goers show up in droves to see the panther—who always gets the food he likes.

In the story “First Sorrow,” Kafka revisits the circus setting. A trapeze artist—who is always the most revered and celebrated member of any circus troupe—asks his circus manager to add another trapeze to his act. He explains to the manager that it is simply a matter of security; with another piece of equipment in the air, the trapeze artist has another way to get safely to the ground. The manager agrees, but, later, he notices the furrow developing on the trapeze artist’s brow. It would seem that, for the trapeze artist, the request for a second trapeze calls into doubt his faith in his art and in his own abilities. With that simple request, everything has changed for the trapeze artist.

“A Little Woman” revolves around an anxious young woman who at first appears to have an issue with the story’s narrator. At least that is what the narrator thinks, as he identifies himself as the source of the young woman’s frustration. He wonders what will quell her anxiety, suggesting that even if he killed himself, the young woman would not calm down. As the story unfolds, the narrator’s reliability grows murky, and it is unclear if he truly is the reason for the anxious woman’s distress.

The final tale, “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,” Kafka’s last known short story, is pure Kafka, through and through. Narrated by a deeply introspective and philosophical mouse, it examines the effect a singing mouse named Josephine has on all the mouse-folk. Josephine has a singularly beautiful voice, and while the narrator does not deny her popularity among mice and her ability to hold entire audiences spellbound in the palm of her paw, as it were, the narrator believes that Josephine only looks talented by comparison. After all, so few mice sing. She is also lazy at work, and her singing attracts attention from dangerous forces—though, because of her celebrated status, she is always rushed to safety first. The narrator muses on the nature of fame, understanding that, even though he sees Josephine for who she truly is, it will not affect her celebrity in any way.

In all of these stories, Kafka delves into the human psyche via an assortment of characters with wholly unique experiences and opinions on life. As they grapple with the eternal incongruities and age-old questions that have consumed humankind from the beginning, these characters reveal themselves as distinct literary creations and embodiments of something larger, something more universal, something that isn’t afraid to ask questions, present ideas, and wonder what it all, ultimately, means.