In order to begin to understand Franz Kafka's metaphorical and ambiguous short story "A Hunger Artist", most readers will more than likely have to read it more than once. Although the successions of events that make up the story are quite uncomplicated and obvious, the overall meaning of what is going on seems to elude the reader. What does stand out is the complicated relationship that the hunger artist has with his audiences.
Kafka's story is about a man who is internationally famous for his act of fasting for up to forty days at a time in public. Even at the height of his career, the hunger artist is dissatisfied and feels unappreciated by his audiences and is frustrated by their inability to completely understand his "art.'' Instead of respecting the hunger artist for his self-control, the public trivializes his form of art. Only the children, who no doubt are accustomed to hearing their parents' relentless commands to "clean" their plate of every nourishing morsel, seem to completely appreciate the anorexic artist, " it was the children's special treat to see the hunger artist; for their elders he was often just a joke that happened to be in fashion, but the children stood open-mouthed, holding each other's hands for greater security, marveling at him as he sat there pallid in black tights, with his ribs sticking out so prominently " (Kafka 606).
In addition to the casual audience, there were also "relays of permanent watches selected by the public, usually butchers, strangely enough, and it was their task to watch the hunger artist day and night, three of them at a time, in case he should have some secret recourse to nourishment" (Kafka 606). Since the hunger artist considers his fasting a sophisticated art, he feels superior to his onlookers and is most annoyed by the permanent watchers who do not take their duties earnestly. Nothing annoyed the artist more than these gluttonous watchers "who were very lax in carrying out their duties and deliberately huddled together in a retired corner to play cards wit great absorption, obviously intending to give the hunger artist the chance of a little refreshment, which they supposed he could draw from some private hoard They made him feel miserable; they made his fast seem unendurable " (Kafka 606).
The hunger artist's art is a symbol of suffering. The real art of his fasting is the use of his free will to implement self-denial and enjoyment of his own misery in order to be pitied or admired for his tolerance and self control by his audience. Above all else, the hunger artist desires that his audience understand and appreciate his suffering as high art. He needs the audience to suffer with him.
The audience refuses to believe the hunger artist suffers as much as he says. By denying that the artist is able to fast so purely and for so long without cheating, the audience is able to cope with his suffering without having to suffer themselves. Therefore the hunger artist struggles with his sense of dissatisfaction because the audience views his suffering only as light entertainment which further alienates the artist from his public causing him to suffer even further. "So he lived for many years, with small regular intervals of recuperation, in visible glory, honored by the world, yet in spite of that troubled in spirit, and all the more troubled because no one would take his trouble seriously" (Kafka 608): a vicious cycle.
The hunger artist confines himself to a cage and has complete control over his hunger and suffering. The cage itself symbolizes the barrier between the artist and the rest of the world. He never chooses to leave his cage on his own; always having to be literally drug out, at the end of his forty-day fasts, by his impresario. The artist dehumanizes himself by sitting "not on a seat but down among straw on the ground, sometimes giving a courteous nod, answering questions wit a constrained smile, or perhaps...