The first sentence of this story seems to leave no doubt about the story's realistic content: "During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished." First Off, then, Kafka induces a consciousness of time by tempting the reader to inquire into the situation of hunger artists before the present decade. But the sober, pseudo-scientific language of this first sentence tends also to suppress the reader's awareness of the essential oddness of the profession of hunger artists. Thus we have only a vague sense of something unusual. The result of this tension between the quasi-historical investigation and the strangeness of its object is irony. Full of meaning, this irony is the bridge between the story's factual style of narration and its abstract content.
This differentiation between two levels of time also supports Kafka's main theme: alienation. It is here presented in terms of the continued confrontation of the hunger artist with his overseers and his audience. From the audience's "diminishing interest" in hunger artists, to its "absence of interest" at the end of the story, Kafka uncovers the mechanism that deepens this alienation. The more the story progresses, the clearer it becomes that this is a parable of the author's spiritual quest, as well as of his relationship with the insensitive world around him. Like all parables, it has a firm basis but is open to more than one interpretation. That it is told from the point of view not of the hero, but of an independent personage outside the plot, is not an argument against this statement. The point where the hero and the world outside his own lie anchored is the narrator's mind. Emotionally disengaged, the narrator's view is both ambiguous and absolute in its pronouncements. Is it Kafka, the teller of the story, viewing the fate of Kafka, the hunger artist?
There is no limit to the paradoxical situations the hunger artist is exposed to. He, whose nature it is to abstain from food, "the very thought of which gave him nausea," suffers from the superficiality and callousness of the overseers who suspect him of cheating and, worse yet, from the greed of the impresario who forces him to interrupt his fasting in order to eat. Most of all, he hates those overseers who want to give him the chance of refreshment, "which they believed he could obtain privately." He prefers being severely checked by the "butchers" among the overseers because, this way, he can prove his seriousness and integrity. These "butchers" belong to the realm of "raw chunks of meat" and the "stench of the menagerie," near which the cage with the artist is set up. They literally prove the validity of fasting to him, simply by existing. (A lifelong vegetarian, Kafka was, literally, the very opposite of a "butcher.") It is exactly through his starving that he tries to cope with them. He suffers in his cage, the symbol of his lack of freedom, but he prefers to starve for the eventual attainment of spiritual freedom rather than accept any of the pseudo-salvations of the realm of the "butchers" — that is, the world around him.
The overseers judge him by their own mediocrity and impotence and have no understanding of his professional code, which forbids him to swallow the least bit of food — were he ever to feel a need to do so (which is impossible in the context of this story). That his fasting may not be a virtue because it is the result of his nature rather than a self-sacrifice, is a different issue and certainly does not bother the overseers. As far as they are concerned, he remains virtuous (and insane which, in their value system, is the same) as long as he does not cheat, even though, as we have said, they do not expect him to live up to his vows. At times, the artist even takes to singing for as long as he can to show that he is not taking food secretly. The reaction of the overseers, however, is surprise at his skill to eat even while singing. Few passages in literature describe the fate of artists as solitary singers in the wilderness more dramatically. This is, of course, one of the tragedies of life: there is no way in which the morally superior can prove their truthfulness to anybody unwilling or unable to believe it. As Kafka puts it here: "The fasting was truly taxing and continuous. Only the artist himself could know that."
So wide is the gap of understanding between the hunger artist and the overseers that one of them will "tap his forehead" with his finger to signal that the artist is insane. The impresario, "his partner in an unparalleled career," actively exploits him. He arranges the hunger artist's life according to the whims of his audience and his own. When a spectator remarks that it is probably the lack of food that makes our hero look so melancholic, the impresario has nothing better to do but to apologize for the physical appearance of his performer, to praise his ambition and "self-denial," and to agree with the remark. This is too much for the artist to bear because it literally turns upside-down the cause and effect of his fasting. He is melancholic not because he does not eat, but because he is continuously tempted to abandon his fasting and to accept the very food he tries to evade. Sometimes he also reacts with outbursts of anger when the merits of his fasting are questioned or when a spectator tries to console him because he looks so thin. Here Kafka succeeds in driving to an extreme the paradox of the hunger artist subsisting on fasting. With it, he also achieves the purest form of irony.
The people — the overseers and the audience — have the feeling that something is wrong with the hunger artist. Being snared in the logic of their minds, however, they never see beyond one and the same suspicion: the artist must be cheating. This limitation of their vision keeps them from uncovering his real cheating — namely, that of making a virtue out of his "misery." "He alone knew what no other initiate knew: how easy it was to fast." This sentence is the key to understanding why the hunger artist is so dissatisfied with himself: he wants to live, and in the context of this paradoxical story the way to live is not to eat. His fasting is an art, though, and art requires to be acknowledged as achievement. It needs to be accepted as the ability to do something positive, whereas in the case of the hunger artist it turns out to be only a necessity, the surrogate for his inability to live on earthly food. Note especially his confession at the end of the story when he breaks down under the burden of his guilt. Ironically, he becomes fully aware of his guilt at precisely the instant when one of his overseers, moved by the sight of the dying artist, answers his confession ("I always wanted you to admire my fasting") by assuring him that he actually has admired him.
To Kafka, fasting is tantamount to being engaged in a spiritual battle against the enemies in this world. But to be thus engaged is his nature. In one of his fragments he says, "Others also fight, but I fight more than they. They fight like in a dream, but I stepped forward to fight consciously with all my might . . . why have I given up the multitude? Why am I target number one for the enemy? I don't know. Another life didn't seem to be worth living to me." And we might safely add, another life would not have been possible for him. In our story, the artist, barely able to utter his last words to the overseer, confesses that he, had he only found the food he liked, would have eaten it like anybody else. He does not transcend life by fasting, but he is fasting in order to survive. His fasting is not opposed to life; it merely makes it possible for him to bear it at all. If the hunger artist needs fasting to survive in the spiritual desert, Kafka needed his writing. In this sense, the story is a parable of the author's own lifelong spiritual quest.
Unlike the hunger artist, however, Kafka never thought of his art as a great achievement. The hunger artist does not merely exist and fast, but he also deliberately and consistently exhibits himself. His vanity leads him to ponder why he should be cheated of the fame he would get for breaking his own record by a "performance beyond human imagination." Kafka was the very opposite: he was overly harsh against himself when it came to judging his work. That his nature forced him to sacrifice his whole life, including three engagements, to writing — this fact he considered, above all, a curse. The hunger artist parades his fasting as a virtue, whereas Kafka was so convinced of the irrelevance of his art that he requested that his manuscripts be burned after his death. Or is Kafka's conviction perhaps only pride on a larger scale, the pride of an obsessed mind that takes absolute knowledge as its goal and suffers ever-new agonies because this knowledge is bound to remain fragmentary?
No doubt Kafka overstates the insensitivity and the lack of engagement of the overseers and the audience in the story. Yet we must not make the mistake of confusing his criticism with value judgment: nowhere does he consider the artist as superior because he is more "sensitive," and nowhere does he ridicule the audience or the overseers as despicable because they are callous, gullible, or even brutal. There is certainly more excitement connected with watching a panther than there is with staring at the solitary hunger artist. No doubt, also, panther-watchers are artistically less demanding and more likely to be fascinated by raw force. It was, nevertheless, not Kafka's intention to label panther-watching an inferior pastime. He, for one, suffered too much from the lack of the "panther" in himself to despise the animal. After all, the panther possesses, in a sense, freedom even though he is in a cage; his freedom is a freedom from consciousness — a state Kafka longed for. Too, the audience can hardly bear watching the "joy of life" and the "ardent passion" exuding from the beast. Kafka is simply pitting two equally justified forces against each other: the yearning for spiritual nourishment of the hunger artist against the elemental affirmation of life by the many. If Kafka condemns anybody, it is the hunger artist who should have pursued his vocation away from spectators and for its own sake. Not even the tremendous admiration of the audience for the hunger artist can, as long as it lasts, be said to be a success for him in Kafka's view because it is based on a serious misjudgment of the artist's intention.
Let us revert to the two opposing forces determining our lives, one pushing in the direction of spiritualization and beyond, the other one pulling back toward the animalistic sphere. In the interest of his own survival, man, according to Kafka, must not permit himself to be governed by either one of the two. If he did, he would find himself in a spiritual realm and thus become incapable of carrying on, or else he would relapse into a pre-human realm. In his diary, Kafka referred to these opposing forces as "the assault from above" and the one "from below." He explained his desire to escape from the world in terms of the "assault from above." All of Kafka's stories are permeated and deal with this opposition, but few show it as clearly as does "A Hunger Artist." The hero's loathing for regular food and his desire to fast to unprecedented perfection are the workings of this force and pull him from earthly life. The wild animals' and, especially, the panther's taking his place represent life-affirming forces. The audience moves between these two opposing forces, but it does not have the capability of either the hunger artist or the panther. Their fate is mere passivity.
The tight structure of the story neatly divides it into two parts, whose major difference may be discussed in terms of these two opposed forces. The first part reveals both forces at work within the hunger artist, the force driving him to fast and the elemental force sustaining his desire to survive. The drive to fast is stronger in the first part, and his art brings him success and even moments of enjoyment. In the second part — for all practical purposes beginning with the words "a few weeks later" the artist fasts even though the audience stays away. The "assault from above" is gaining the upper hand and begins to mark him for destruction. Without an audience, he lacks the affirmation of his outward existence. As a result, the force counteracting his desire to fast is becoming increasingly weaker. This life-sustaining elemental force lies no longer within him but within the beasts next door. More and more, they are attracting the crowd, which now considers him only as an obstacle on their way to the stables. The crowd shifts their attention to whatever is most exciting at the moment and thus mills around the cage of the panther. That the artist's cage was placed so close to the animals "made it too easy for people to make their choice." At the end, when he has starved himself to death, the embodiment of sheer vitality appears as his principal enemy: the panther.
If we look at the two parts in terms of the relationship between the hunger artist's fasting and truth, we can say that the perversion of truth becomes greater the more his art is lowered to the level of show. The more successful his show is, the less true it is. Typically enough, the highpoint of his outward success, the fortieth day of fasting, beyond which he was not allowed to go by the impresario for commercial reasons, is also the point at which the hunger artist suffers defeat. As a "reward" for his fasting, he, whose sole desire it is to find spiritual food, is offered precisely the physical food he cannot eat. Here, as elsewhere in Kafka's works, the hero is tempted by women to abandon his goal: in "The judgment," it is Frieda, in "A Country Doctor," it is Rosa, and in The Trial, it is Fraulein Burstner and Leni. The impresario forces the food between the stubborn artist's lips while a military band drowns the scene in cheerful music and enthusiastic crowds swarm around the "flower-bedecked cage"; at the same time, the image of the circus, a frequent one in Kafka's works, reflects all the absurdities of this world. In the second part, when nobody cares for the hunger artist, he can live for his fasting. For his best performance, nobody forces a reward on him, and "no one, not even the hunger artist himself, knew what records he was already breaking." At his death, he is now at one with his nature and can finally ease his burden by confessing his lifelong guilt of having paraded his fasting as a virtue.
The sum total of truth (his art) and life are the same at all times, but one goes on at the expense of the other. By living, man gets in his own way as regards the fulfillment of his art, his search for truth. Expressed in terms of our story, it is true that not eating eventually takes the hunger artist's physical life, but from the debris of this life there flows forth a new, spiritualized life unknown to others. If the artist wants to find his truth, he must destroy himself. Suffering, here fasting, is the only possible way for man to redeem his true self. It is both the prerogative and curse of the hunger artist (and Kafka) that he is driven to follow this path to its inevitable conclusion.
The story of the man who lives on hunger contains the realization which Kafka consistently develops until the inherent paradox dissolves into two parts — the part of fasting and that of the elemental life force. Kafka may not make statements about something rational, but his paradoxes are highly rational statements.