A Hunger Artist

"A Hunger Artist" (German: "Ein Hungerkünstler") is a short story by Franz Kafka first published in Die neue Rundschau in 1922. The story was also included in the collection A Hunger Artist (Ein Hungerkünstler), the last book Kafka prepared for publication, printed by Verlag Die Schmiede after Kafka's death. The protagonist, a hunger artist who experiences the decline in appreciation of his craft, is an archetypical creation of Kafka: an individual marginalized and victimized by society at large. The title of the story has been translated also to "A Fasting Artist" and "A Starvation Artist".

"A Hunger Artist"
AuthorFranz Kafka
Original title"Ein Hungerkünstler"
TranslatorH. Steinhauer and Helen Jessiman (1938)
Willa and Edwin Muir (1948)
CountryGermany (written in Austria-Hungary)
Genre(s)Short story
Published inDie neue Rundschau
Publication typeperiodical
Publication date1922
Published in English1938
De Kafka Hungerkünstler 07
Title page of 1924 edition of Ein Hungerkünstler


"A Hunger Artist" was first published in the periodical Die neue Rundschau in 1922[1] and was subsequently included as the title piece in the short story collection. "A Hunger Artist" explores the familiar Kafka themes of death, art, isolation, asceticism, spiritual poverty, futility, personal failure and the corruption of human relationships.


"A Hunger Artist" is told retrospectively through third-person narration. The narrator looks back several decades from "today", to a time when the public marvelled at the professional hunger artist, a public performer who fasts for many days. It then depicts the waning interest in such displays.

The story begins with a general description of "the hunger artist" and then narrows in on a single performer, the protagonist. The hunger artist performed in a cage for the curious spectators, and was attended by teams of watchers (usually three butchers) who ensured that he was not secretly eating. Despite such precautions, many, including some of the watchers themselves, were convinced that the hunger artist cheated. Such suspicions annoyed the hunger artist, as did the forty-day limit imposed on his fasting by his promoter, or "impresario". The impresario insisted that after forty days public sympathy for the hunger artist inevitably declined. The hunger artist, however, found the time limit irksome and arbitrary, as it prevented him from bettering his own record, from fasting indefinitely. At the end of a fast the hunger artist, amid highly theatrical fanfare, would be carried from his cage and made to eat, both of which he always resented.

These performances, followed by intervals of recuperation, were repeated for many years. Despite his fame, the hunger artist felt dissatisfied and misunderstood. If a spectator, observing his apparent melancholy, tried to console him, he would erupt in fury, shaking the bars of his cage. The impresario would punish such outbursts by apologizing to the audience, pointing out that irritability was a consequence of fasting. He would then mention the hunger artist's boast that he could fast much longer than he was doing, but would show photographs of the hunger artist near death at the end of a previous fast. In this way he suggested that the hunger artist's sadness and poor physique was caused by fasting, when, in the hunger artist's view, he was depressed because of the premature cessation of his fasts. The impresario's "perversion of the truth" further exasperated the hunger artist.

Seemingly overnight, popular tastes changed and public fasting went out of fashion. The hunger artist broke his ties with the impresario and hired himself to a circus, where he hoped to perform truly prodigious feats of fasting. No longer a main attraction, he was given a cage on the outskirts of the circus, near the animal cages. Although the site was readily accessible, and crowds thronged past on their way to see the animals, any spectators who stopped to see him created an obstruction in the flow of people on their way to the animals. At first the hunger artist looked forward to the passing of the crowds, but in time he grew irritated by the noise and disruption caused by the people, and the stench, the roaring, and the feeding of the animals depressed him. Eventually, the hunger artist was completely ignored. No one, not even the artist himself, counted the days of his fast. One day an overseer noticed the hunger artist's cage with its dirty straw. He wondered why the cage was unused; when he and the attendants inspected it, however, they found the hunger artist near death. Before he died he asked forgiveness and confessed that he should not be admired, since the reason he fasted was simply that he could not find food to his liking. The hunger artist was buried with the straw of his cage and replaced by a panther. Spectators crowded about the panther's cage because the panther took so much joy in life, unlike the hunger artist. The story also mentions that the panther was always brought the food he liked, a hint to the readers that can be interpreted in many ways.

Major themes

There is a sharp division among critical interpretations of "A Hunger Artist". Most commentators concur that the story is an allegory, but they disagree as to what is represented. Some critics, pointing to the hunger artist's asceticism, regard him as a saintly or even Christ-like figure. In support of this view they emphasize the unworldliness of the protagonist, the priest-like quality of the watchers, and the traditional religious significance of the forty-day period. Other critics insist that "A Hunger Artist" is an allegory of the misunderstood artist, whose vision of transcendence and artistic excellence is rejected or ignored by the public. This interpretation is sometimes joined with a reading of the story as autobiographical. According to this view, this story, written near the end of Kafka's life, links the hunger artist with the author as an alienated artist who is dying.

Whether the protagonist's starving is seen as spiritual or artistic, the panther is regarded as the hunger artist's antithesis: satisfied and contented, the animal's corporeality stands in marked contrast to the hunger artist's ethereality. A final interpretive division surrounds the issue of whether "A Hunger Artist" is meant to be read ironically. Some critics consider the story a sympathetic depiction of a misunderstood artist who seeks to rise above the merely animal parts of human nature (represented by the panther) and who is confronted with uncomprehending audiences. Others regard it as Kafka's ironic comment on artistic pretensions. The hunger artist comes to symbolize a joy-deprived man who shows no exuberance, who regards even his own tremendous discipline as inauthentic, and the panther who replaces him obviously is meant to show a sharp contrast of the two. Still at least one interpretation is that Kafka is expressing the world's indifference to his own artistic scruples, through the plight of the hunger artist.[2]

The moral of the story, says literature critic Maud Ellmann, is that it is not by food that we survive but by the gaze of others and "it is impossible to live by hunger unless we can be seen or represent doing so" (1993:17).[3]


  • A comics adaptation of the story, illustrated by Peter Kuper, is included in Give It Up!.
  • Introducing Kafka, a graphic novel written by David Zane Mairowitz and illustrated by Robert Crumb, examines Kafka's life and work and includes a retelling of "A Hunger Artist".
  • The Hunger Artists Theatre Company staged an adaptation of the story entitled The Pledge Drive: Ruminations On The Hunger Artist, written by Jason Lindner. In the play, The Hunger Artist was the host of a pledge drive in which the guests were other people who were bound by their identities.[4]
  • The stop motion animated film The Hunger Artist by Tom Gibbons. 2002, US, 16 minutes.
  • A Japanese film adaption "The Artist of Fasting" by Masao Adachi. 2016, Japan, 104 minutes.
  • The story was retold as a solo show of the same name by the theater company Sinking Ship Productions, adapted by playwright Josh Luxenberg, performer Jonathan Levin, and director Joshua William Gelb and presented Off-Broadway by The Tank at the Connelly Theater in 2017.[5] The production was nominated for two Drama Desk Awards in its New York run,[6] and was one of the top rated shows of the 2017 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.[7]


  1. ^ Gray, Richard T. (2005). A Franz Kafka Encyclopedia. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 206. ISBN 978-0-313-30375-3. Retrieved 21 August 2012.
  2. ^ Ethical Significance of Free Choice: A Reply to Professor West, The RA Posner - Harv. L. Rev., 1985
  3. ^ Gooldin, Sigal (2003). "Fasting Women, Living Skeletons and Hunger Artists: Spectacles of Body and Miracles at the Turn of a Century". Body & Society. 9 (2): 27–53. doi:10.1177/1357034X030092002.
  4. ^ "The Pledge Drive: Ruminations On The Hunger Artist". Hunger Artists Theatre Company. May 2006. Retrieved 2007-03-29.
  5. ^ Collins-Hughes, Laura (June 9, 2017). "Review: Kafka With Puppets, Ghost Light and Shadows". The New York Times. Archived from the original on June 15, 2017. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  6. ^ "2018 Nominees and Winners". www.dramadeskawards.com. Retrieved 2018-10-13.
  7. ^ "Top rated shows of 2017 | Edinburgh Festival". edinburghfestival.list.co.uk. Retrieved 2018-10-17.


  • Kafka, Franz (1996). The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, trans. Donna Freed. New York: Barnes & Noble. ISBN 1-56619-969-7.

External links

A Hunger Artist (short story collection)

A Hunger Artist (German: Ein Hungerkünstler) is the collection of four short stories by Franz Kafka published in Germany in 1924, the last collection that Kafka himself prepared for publication. Kafka was able to correct the proofs during his final illness but the book was published by Verlag Die Schmiede several months after his death.

The English translation by Willa and Edwin Muir was published by Schocken Books in 1948 in the collection The Penal Colony. All individual stories in the collection have also been translated before by various translators.

A Little Woman

"A Little Woman" (German: "Eine kleine Frau") is a short story by Franz Kafka written between December 1923 and the end of January 1924. It was first published in the Easter supplement of Prager Tagblatt on 20 April 1924. During his final illness Kafka corrected the proofs of the story for the inclusion into collection A Hunger Artist (Ein Hungerkünstler) published by Verlag Die Schmiede after his death.

First Sorrow

"First Sorrow" (German: "Erstes Leid") is a short story by Franz Kafka probably written between the fall of 1921 and the spring of 1922. It appeared in Kurt Wolff Verlag's art periodical Genius, III no. 2 (dated 1921, actually published in 1922) and in the Christmas 1923 supplement to the Prager Presse. The story was also included in the collection A Hunger Artist (Ein Hungerkünstler) published by Verlag Die Schmiede soon after Kafka's death.

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka (3 July 1883 – 3 June 1924) was a German-speaking Bohemian Jewish novelist and short-story writer, widely regarded as one of the major figures of 20th-century literature. His work, which fuses elements of realism and the fantastic, typically features isolated protagonists facing bizarre or surrealistic predicaments and incomprehensible socio-bureaucratic powers, and has been interpreted as exploring themes of alienation, existential anxiety, guilt, and absurdity. His best known works include "Die Verwandlung" ("The Metamorphosis"), Der Process (The Trial), and Das Schloss (The Castle). The term Kafkaesque has entered the English language to describe situations like those found in his writing.Kafka was born into a middle-class, German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, today the capital of the Czech Republic. He trained as a lawyer, and after completing his legal education, was employed full-time by an insurance company, forcing him to relegate writing to his spare time. Over the course of his life, Kafka wrote hundreds of letters to family and close friends, including his father, with whom he had a strained and formal relationship. He became engaged to several women but never married. He died in 1924 at the age of 40 from tuberculosis.

Few of Kafka's works were published during his lifetime: the story collections Betrachtung (Contemplation) and Ein Landarzt (A Country Doctor), and individual stories (such as "Die Verwandlung") were published in literary magazines but received little public attention. In his will, Kafka instructed his executor and friend Max Brod to destroy his unfinished works, including his novels Der Process, Das Schloss and Der Verschollene (translated as both Amerika and The Man Who Disappeared), but Brod ignored these instructions. His work has influenced a vast range of writers, critics, artists, and philosophers during the 20th and 21st centuries.

Franz Kafka Prize

The Franz Kafka Prize is an international literary award presented in honour of Franz Kafka, the German language novelist. The prize was first awarded in 2001 and is co-sponsored by the Franz Kafka Society and the city of Prague, Czech Republic.

Franz Kafka bibliography

Franz Kafka, a German-language writer of novels and short stories, regarded by critics as one of the most influential authors of the 20th century, was trained as a lawyer and was employed by an insurance company, writing only in his spare time.

Give It Up! (comics)

Give It Up! is a comics adaptation of nine short stories by Franz Kafka drawn by Peter Kuper.

In the introduction, by Jules Feiffer, Kuper's adaptations are described as "riffs, visual improvisations."

Head of Franz Kafka

The Head of Franz Kafka (Czech: Hlava Franze Kafky), also known as the Statue of Kafka, is an outdoor sculpture by David Černý depicting Bohemian German-language writer Franz Kafka, installed outside the Quadrio shopping centre in Prague, Czech Republic. The kinetic sculpture is 11 metres tall and made of 42 rotating panels.

Hunger Artist

Hunger Artist may refer to:

Hunger artists, performance artists popular in the 1880s

"A Hunger Artist", a 1922 short story by Franz Kafka

A Hunger Artist (collection), a 1924 collection of short stories by Franz Kafka

The Hunger Artist (play), a 1987 Richard Greenberg play

"The Hunger Artist" (CSI episode), a 2002 episode of CSI

Hunger artist

Hunger artists or starvation artists were performers, common in Europe and America in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century, who starved themselves for extended periods of time, for the amusement of paying audiences. The phenomenon first appeared in the 17th century and saw its heyday in the 1880s. Hunger artists were almost always male, traveled from city to city and performed widely advertised fasts of up to 40 days. Several hunger artists were found to have cheated during their performances.The phenomenon has been relayed to modern audiences through Franz Kafka's 1922 short story A Hunger Artist.

Hunger artists should be distinguished from two other phenomena of the time: "Fasting Women" such as Martha Taylor and Ann Moore who refused to eat while staying home, usually explained as some kind of miracle and later exposed as fraud; and "Living Skeletons", people of exceptionally low body weight performing in freak shows. Sigal Gooldin sees hunger artists as "a

modern spectacular version of the disciplined self" that can be interpreted in Foucauldian terms in the context of "the modern governmentality of ‘biopower’".

Introducing Kafka

Introducing Kafka, also known as R. Crumb's Kafka, is an illustrated biography of Franz Kafka by David Zane Mairowitz and Robert Crumb. The book includes comic adaptations of some of Kafka's most famous works including The Metamorphosis, A Hunger Artist, In the Penal Colony, and The Judgment, as well as brief sketches of his three novels The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika. The book also details Kafka's biography in a format that is part illustrated essay, part sequential comic panels.

Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk

"Josephine, the Singer or the Mouse Folk" (German: "Josefine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse") is the last short story written by Franz Kafka. It deals with the relationship between an artist and her audience. The story was included in the collection A Hunger Artist (Ein Hungerkünstler) published by Verlag Die Schmiede soon after Kafka's death.

Kafka's Dick

Kafka's Dick is a 1986 play by Alan Bennett. It is a play about the nature of fame, and how reputation is gained.

Ottla Kafka

Ottilie "Ottla" Kafka (29 October 1892 – 7 October 1943) was the youngest sister of Franz Kafka. His favourite sister, she was probably also his closest relative and supported him in difficult times. Their correspondence was published as Letters to Ottla.

Richard Greenberg

Richard Greenberg (born February 22, 1958) is an American playwright and television writer known for his subversively humorous depictions of middle-class American life. He has had more than 25 plays premiere on and off-broadway in New York City and eight at the South Coast Repertory Theatre (Costa Mesa, California), including The Violet Hour, Everett Beekin, and Hurrah at Last.Greenberg is perhaps best known for his 2003 Tony Award winning play, Take Me Out about the conflicts that arise after a Major League Baseball player nonchalantly announces to the media that he is gay. The play premiered in London and ran in New York as the first collaboration between England's Donmar Warehouse and New York's Public Theater. After its Broadway transfer in early 2003, Take Me Out won widespread critical acclaim for Greenberg and numerous prestigious awards.

Richard and Samuel

Richard and Samuel is an unfinished novel by Max Brod and Franz Kafka. It was started in November 1911, and only the first chapter was written. The text with an outline of the plot and characters appeared in the May 2012 edition of Herder-Blätter, edited by Willy Haas, a close friend of both Brod and Kafka.

Statue of Franz Kafka

The Statue of Franz Kafka is a sculpture by artist Jaroslav Róna that was installed on Vězeňská street in the Jewish Quarter of Prague, Czech Republic in December 2003. It depicts Franz Kafka riding on the shoulders of a headless figure, in reference to the author's 1912 story "Description of a Struggle" (Beschreibung eines Kampfes).

The Trial

The Trial (original German title: Der Process, later Der Proceß, Der Prozeß and Der Prozess) is a novel written by Franz Kafka between 1914 and 1915 and published posthumously in 1925. One of his most well-known works, it tells the story of Josef K., a man arrested and prosecuted by a remote, inaccessible authority, with the nature of his crime revealed neither to him nor to the reader. Heavily influenced by Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, Kafka even went so far as to call Dostoyevsky a blood relative. Like Kafka's other novels, The Trial was never completed, although it does include a chapter which brings the story to an end.

After Kafka's death in 1924 his friend and literary executor Max Brod edited the text for publication by Verlag Die Schmiede. The original manuscript is held at the Museum of Modern Literature, Marbach am Neckar, Germany. The first English language translation, by Willa and Edwin Muir, was published in 1937. In 1999, the book was listed in Le Monde's 100 Books of the Century and as No. 2 of the Best German Novels of the Twentieth Century.

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