Study Guide
Franz Kafka's "A Hunger Artist"

Note: For this Study Guide to be useful, you will need to print it out.  But if you plan to print this out from one of the KSU public computer labs, be sure first to go into the File menu, choose "Page Setup," and make sure the square labeled "Black Type" is filled in with an X. (If it is not, just click on it.)  This will ensure that text in color prints out (in black) instead of coming out blank.

Plan on reading the story three times before you undertake to write on it.  Devote your first reading just to finding out what happens.  But as you do this, be asking yourself what you find yourself feeling as you discover what transpires. 

Before, or after, your first reading of the story, you may want to know something about Franz Kafka.  You can find biographical material (and much more) via links to Kafka pages on the web.

Preliminary Note:  Why this Study Guide?

You will probably find that working through this Study Guide is pretty taxing.  Right at the outset you should expect to experience a fair degree of frustration at times.  The story in its own right is plenty baffling to start with!  (And this is clearly part of Kafka's design.)  But beyond that, this particular Study Guide itself is also a pretty complicated creature. 

Sometimes you will have to puzzle out what I seem to be meaning by a clause or a sentence.  (The very next one is a case in point.) 

Sometimes you will have to stop and rethink how parts connect with each other -- how the questions posed arise out of a combination of details of the story and assumptions that the reader (that is, the one presupposed by the story) brings to bear upon the story, how those assumptions are argued for, how answers to earlier questions give rise to subsequent questions, etc.  

Also:  from time to time I urge you to stop and try to come up one your own with some thoughts relating to this or that issue raised.  I ask you to resist the temptation to read on through the Study Guide, and instead actually pull up and do that reflecting. 

All this takes time.  And it may be that you find yourself not coming up with much.  OK, but make the attempt.

If you will invest the effort, you will reap some pretty substantial returns.  You will be on a sound footing for understanding what we do in class with this story.  More than that, you will already have been rehearsing intellectual moves -- carrying out appropriate curiosities -- that it is the business of this course to help you develop.  Meanwhile, be patient with yourself as your frustration rises.  It doesn't mean you're not fit to be here:  it means this is where you belong.

This Study Guide is designed to do several things.  You may wish to skip now to the tasks of the first reading.  But sooner or later you should return to the following three points about what success in this exercise would consist in.

(1)   If you follow the Study Guide carefully, it will take you through several sorts of experiences that, together, will help you to see and rehearse some important moves that you want to make a standard part of your repertoire as a reader of serious fiction - and, something equally important, to appreciate the point (payoff) of, and the enabling assumptions behind, these moves.

In particular, it tries to help you to see how a story prompts a reader who brings to bear the right sorts of assumptions to ask the particular sorts of questions that, if followed up, will take that reader into the heart of the story's theme.  It is hard to stress the importance of this point too much.  It is one thing to be able to answer an appropriate question.  It is quite another to be able to formulate one in the first place!  The goal of this course is to improve your skills on both of these fronts.

Up to now the tasks you have been assigned may have been entirely or mostly of the first sort. This is quite as it should be. One can't get serious about learning how to ask the right questions unless one first appreciates what sorts of insights they can lead to, and has some idea of how one goes about getting from the question to the insight. Starting with the details of how stories direct our interrogation of them runs the risk of submerging the us in a welter of considerations that can seem pointless. Learning to formulate puzzles we as yet have no idea how to "solve" can seem an exercise in futility. Together, such a procedure can be a recipe for drowning in despair.

But sooner or later - and now looks to be a good time for us - we need to address the other possible front on which it is possible to become discouraged:  what good is it for me to know how to answer a range of kinds of questions if, supposing I were to encounter a story on my own, I wouldn't have a clue as to what questions would be profitable ones to be taking up with it in the first place?  Unless we catch on to how to do this, we won't be able to read without someone else looking over our shoulder telling us what to ask.  In any field -- a particular science, doing history, practicing law -- we must learn how to generate an appropriate inquiry if we are going to be "where the action is."  Making sense of works of art (like short stories) is no exception:  we must aspire to become autonomous, and this means to be able to be curious on our own in the right ways.

Well, the clues are there. We need now to see how they telegraph their function as clues.

(2)   In addition, if you are conscientious in carrying out the procedure outlined in this guide, you will acquire a succession of different experiences of Kafka's story that should put you on a firm footing for coming to terms with the writing assignment set forth at the end.

(3)   Finally, working through this guide in detail will give you some practice in carrying out the kind of writing task you can expect to engage when you come to write a paper for grading in the course. What is this?  It will be a complex analysis of thematically important comparisons and contrasts.  Not easy business.  If it baffles you, it's because you are inexperienced.  And there's only one way to remedy that:  practice, practice, and more practice.

Your first reading:  letting the story show itself.

Study carefully the story. It's not long, but it is enigmatic! Let your first reading be for the purpose of allowing yourself float into that mysteriousness: your goal is to go with the flow, and not get up-tight about what you don't make immediate sense of, what's puzzling, bizarre. There's plenty of that here, and part of the pleasure Kafka is undertaking to offer his reader is participating in an easy-going, comfortable way in the unfolding weirdness, which begins with the very first line and gets stranger and stranger as the story progresses.

One of the ways he makes this ever-growing weirdness fun is by making sure that, on the level of the individual details and the sequence of events, everything is strikingly clear!  We have no trouble tracking what is going on.  And the texture of the style is direct and simple:  there is nothing convoluted about the structure of the sentences, and the words embedded in those structures are familiar, easy.  The same goes for the basic narrative structure: the succession of events that make up the story is quite straightforward and transparent.  (We don't confront the problems of untangling the plot that we deal when reading a story like Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" or Gabriel García Márquez's "Leaf Storm.")  Rather, in Kafka's story, the growing mystery has to do rather with the fact that the overall meaning of what is going on seems to elude us.  In other words, Kafka keeps our primary frustration load, at the basic level of "what's going on," at an absolute minimum.  We don't have to "wrestle" with any of this.

Do not read further in this Study Guide until you have completed your first reading.

Your second reading:  reflecting on how our attention is shaped by the story.

Let the story sit a while before embarking on a second reading. And before reading further in this memo, jot down a couple or three points that you found mysterious about the explicit events you've been taken through in your initial reading.

Do this now.

Before undertaking your second reading, let's recall certain features of the story that we were aware of in the course of our initial acquaintance with it. Keep handy your earlier jottings concerning your puzzlements, and see if some of them don't turn up in these observations:

(1)  The story is focused on a virtual "straight-line" progression of events: a man whose performances were traditionally at the center of people's attention becomes less and less able to command an audience, increasingly marginal (put on display in a sideshow), until eventually he is ignored altogether, and finally is replaced by a panther, which, though placed in the same marginal position on the way to the "main attraction," ends up so monopolizing the attention of passersby that they can scarcely pull themselves away from their fascination. Now until its last paragraph, the story puts the experience of the Hunger Artist in the foreground of our attention. But it represents the "moving force," in the background, of what happens to the Hunger Artist, and of what happens after he disappears from the scene, as the attention of the general public. That is, the ultimate explanation of the plot of the story - the change in the fortunes of the protagonist, and his replacement at the end by the panther - is made to turn upon a "deeper" change, located in "the circumstances," namely, a change in the attitudes of the mass of the people of the community.

In other words, the motivation of the plot is so designed as to bring our attention, sooner or later, to this factor, as somehow fundamental in explaining the foreground events. Yet - and here we pass from the clarities to the mysteries - the story is silent about what accounts in turn for this change in "audience taste." It comes across as autonomous, but at the same time as opaque. The author has led us into what apparently turns out to be an intellectual cul de sac: the story proposes to explain the events it presents by referring us back to a more fundamental factor; yet it leaves this "root of the matter" itself flagrantly unexplained. This is frustrating: the story teases us with the promise of "closure" but ultimately leaves us dangling in uncertainty all over again. What are we to make of this? What are we to do in the face of it?

(2)  Right at the very end of the story - just before the final paragraph and in that closing paragraph itself - we are confronted with two plot "reversals":  (A) the by-now completely neglected Hunger Artist makes his deathbed confession, and (B) after his corpse is swept out of the cage he has been occupying in the sideshow menagerie he is replaced, in the same cage, by a panther, described in vivid and succinct detail, who suddenly becomes an object of public attention, indeed, almost obsessive fascination.

First of all, the facts that the panther functions as a replacement of the Hunger Artist (in the public estimation), and within the same physical frame of reference in the setting (the cage), serve to put the two in stark juxtaposition to each other. Here is an emphatic feature. We ask: why this emphasis? (Cf. footnote 5, below.)

Moreover, the double-whammy of surprise here at the end is "striking." For plot reversals have the intrinsic property of "standing out." And this "attention-grabbing" quality means that they automatically prompt the practiced reader to treat them as devices of emphasis. They implicitly raise the question:  what is the author's point in making events turn on the contrasts that constitute these surprises? In other words, they draw attention, in turn, to the potential presence of certain "foil systems" that - if the story is being put forward with thematically serious intent - are likely to be thematically significant.

Now note that with this doublet of surprises we end up with a triplet of systematic sets of oppositions, or "foils":

(a)  that between the public persona of the Hunger Artist and what at the end he reveals all along to have been the secret reality;

(b)  that between the public persona of the Hunger Artist and the panther; and

(c)  that between the panther and the private reality of the Hunger Artist.

Apparently, Kafka is arranging the plot of his tale so that the reader will be starkly confronted with the contrasts among these three elements (the Hunger Artist's façade, the Hunger Artist's real nature, the nature of the panther). Getting to work in sorting this out is likely to prove a high road to resolving our puzzlement about "what the story is about."

(3)   The story, we said, puzzles from the very start: "During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished. It used to pay very well to stage such great performances under one's own management, but today that is quite impossible. We live in a different world now." REALLY? You've never heard of such things? Could there have been a tradition of "professional fasting" common in, say, Central Europe (where Kafka was writing) or in Germany and Austria (where his primary readership lived), and you never have heard of it? Well, no doubt you are confident enough that lots of things have gone on in history that you've never heard of, so you might lack the confidence to pronounce this feature of the narrative to be a patent absurdity. After all, perhaps the story is simply about some weird custom you just happen never to have heard of. And, when you get to the end of the story, you may have found yourself wondering, "Gee, did people of Kafka's day [your grandparents' day - the story was published in 1924] in whatever place the story is set in REALLY go bonkers over panthers this way?"

Well, one of these days your sense of European history will be quite a bit more developed, and one of the things that will then strike you, if you are moved to recall Kafka's story, is that, still you haven't heard any news of any such now-vanished institution as "professional fasting." Or, if today, you will walk across the hall from our classroom and ask Professor Gray of the History Department (whose field of expertise is nineteenth-century European [and especially German] history) where you might go to read some more on this interesting phenomenon that you've been reading about, he will look at you strangely and ask, "Now what is this thing you've been reading about? I've never heard of it." And when you've finished describing it in more detail, he'll explain why he (like every one of his professional colleagues in the world) hasn't heard anything about it: it never existed.

This, of course, would have been immediately clear to Kafka's primary readership, who were not only much closer in time to the period in which the story (to judge from various incidental details is to be imagined to be set), but who were almost all of them the beneficiaries of elite classical German secondary educations, which included a generous dose of recent European history.

So, what would they have made of this odd fact: the whole story is about an entire category of practice that has never existed. In its nature, of course, fiction is made up of pretended concrete events that never happened in fact. But, at least in the "realist" genre of fiction, we expect the events of the story to consist of the kinds of things that do go on in the world. Otherwise, how are they supposed to be about the world. And if they aren't about the world, what's the point in being asked to consider them? What's Kafka up to here? Isn't this just nonsense?

Yes it is, but a special sort - indeed a sensical sort! - of nonsense. In fact you are already quite familiar and comfortable with a strictly parallel sort.  Metaphor turns up all the time in everyday speech. Suppose you overhear someone tell a friend, "Yesterday down in Aggieville I got knocked over by a dream." Now here, surely, is a piece of nonsense. A dream (which, being a particular sort of mental event, is immaterial) falls logically outside the category of things (namely, material objects) which can be the agent of the sorts of actions we refer to as "knocking over." We'd be making the same sort of "category violation" if we were to talk of a "premise" as "tripping up" someone's opponent, or of a new idea a "bowling me over." Yet in each case we take the literal absurdity of the statement (the fact that, logically, it can't even convey a proposition, whether true or false) as a prompt for us to try to construct a sense that might plausibly, in the context of the utterance, be being conveyed by the sentence.

In the case of the sentence "Yesterday in Aggieville I got knocked over by a dream," we have a lot of possibilities. Maybe the force of "knocked over" here is something like "dazed." Or perhaps it is rather "stopped in my tracks" - by surprise, say, or shock or, for that matter, by a physical object like a car or someone else's body. (Note that these are not necessarily the same: I could be dazed about something and still keep marching, zombie-like, straight ahead. I could be brought to a halt and still be quite mentally clear about what is going on.) Maybe the force of "dream" is "fantasy motivated by desire"; or perhaps it's "aspiration"; or "object that conforms to one's wishes" (a "hunk" or a "goddess" or "the car of my dreams"). So long as at least one of the elements in the illogical combination is construed figuratively, the absurdity can be made to vanish. But of course there is nothing in principle to prevent us from simultaneously construing both elements figuratively.

Among the many possibilities - to restrict ourselves for the moment to conjuring with the constructions we have just mentioned - we get: "I was [literally] knocked down by a car that, when I looked at it, struck me with wonder." "I was [literally] bumped by the woman [or man] of my dreams." "I was dazed by a possibility for a career I had never considered before." "I was dazed by encountering the most good-looking person I'd ever seen." And so on. Some of these may be corny (but then, people are sometimes corny). And of course any of them might, under the circumstances be false (a boldfaced lie, for instance, or just a genial tall tale). But they are all sensical. Indeed their sensicality is a precondition of their being able to be false (or true).

I said before that metaphor involves kind of nonsense that is a strictly parallel, in form and function, to the kind of nonsense we are confronted with at the outset of Kafka's story. As to form, I meant an absurdity that, if not remedied, would render the utterence or depiction pointless. (The statement, say, couldn't be either true or false. The story, taken literally, would have no serious claim on our attention.) As to function, I meant that this impossibility prompts us to cast about for ways we might "recoup" sensicality by construing figuratively at least one of the elements of the nonsensical combination. In "A Hunger Artist," the nonsense consists in the supposition that the setting of the story (the known history of the culture within which the primary readership locates itself) embraces an institution that has never existed, or at least not there. I speak of the cases as "parallel" rather than as "identical," though, because in the case of metaphor we have to do with a verbal construction (a sentence), the incompatible elements are in the nature of words or phrases, and the categorial incompatibility is of a logical nature. In the case of our story, however, we have to do with a represented situation, whose incompatible elements are two facts (or, because we have a piece of fiction, supposed facts), and whose categorial incompatibility is of a historical (a type of empirical or factual) sort. To construe a fact (or a represented fact, or a pretended fact) figuratively, is to regard it as functioning as a symbol.

The suggestion is, then, that the very opening move of Kafka's story is a signal, to the story's primary readership, that the tale is to be understood as functioning not "realistically" but symbolically.  (Stories can of course simultaneously function realistically and symbolically -- indeed stories we call "realistic" probably always do so to at least some extent.  But some stories, like this one by Kafka, are designed not to make sense on the realistic level at all, and to force us immediately into the symbolic realm.  This is what leads us to recognize it as "surrealistic.")

Logically speaking, we have three options: (i) The story is not about "our history," but is rather about some other people's history, in which there at one time did indeed exist a practice of professional fasting, which for some reason to be discovered and appreciated the author has imaginatively transposed into our historical ambient. (ii) The story is not about "professional fasters" and "wild beasts" but about something that supposedly has gone on with us that these are to be understood as standing for. (iii) The story is about neither our history nor about hunger artists and panthers in someone else's, but is a parable about what has happened in some other culture that for some reason it would be well for us to contemplate.

Our instinct will be to begin with the second of these possibilities, and to resort to the third, and finally the first, only insofar as we seem to be running into a brick wall with our hunch, which is predicated on the assumption that fiction the shortest potential way to relevance is the best to explore first.

(4)  So far we have noted a way (1, above) in which the story is so shaped as to generate a puzzlement. And we have noted a way (2, above) in which it is so shaped as to point us in some likely directions for mining out materials for constructing answers to the questions with which it contrives to leave us. We've also noted a way (3, above) in which the story may be so featured as to point us in a certain general direction as to the sort of meaning (the figurative, or "symbolic") we might want to focus our efforts on exploring in constructing these answers.

How is this so?

Well, foil (b), above, promises to yield some clues as to what may be at stake in the public's losing interest in the fasting of the Hunger Artist and developing a fascination with the behavior of the panther during feeding times. What structure of questions might constitute a reasonable agenda of curiosity to try to prosecute here? Consider the following:

A.  What are the issues at stake in foil (b)?

Does foil (a), above, help us to appreciate what assumptions might lie behind this sort of respect?

Stop and do some reflection on this before going further!

Note that, in a situation of admiration, we have an instance of still another foil. For clarity's sake we'll label it foil (d): that between the Hunger Artist (as he appears in the traditional periodic performances) and the crowd who gathers to watch him.

The adulator posits himself as at once "tied to" and "lower than" the object of adulation. In this story, the people "identify with" the object of admiration insofar as they pay homage to the values his performance supposedly celebrates. But they implicitly distinguish themselves from him as well, for in choosing to be spectators of fasting (rather than fasters) they also acknowledge themselves (a further element of self-identification or self-definition) as "not up to such things" themselves. This is an equally important element of their "self-identification," or self-definition. That is, they confess both to at least an official wish to be able to be like the "hero" and to the incapacity, in their own condition as "ordinary humanity," to do so. Like a bad conscience, we might say, the Hunger Artist serves as a reminder of what they admit "one ought to be" and of what they either constitutionally "can't" or just aren't willing to be.

Does foil (c), above, help us to appreciate what assumptions might be at work here?

Stop and do some reflection on this before going further.

And since we have another situation of admiration, we have yet another instance of a foil to explore the ramifications of. We'll label it foil (e): between the panther and the crowd that gathers to be stunned by its presence.

This, in turn, leads to a further question: are the terms of this foil (the elements of contrast that it consists of) essentially the same as those of foil (c)? That is, since both the actual (private, secret) Hunger Artist and the crowd of folk are "weak" in comparison with the contrasting strengths of both the pretended Hunger Artist and the panther, it might be that they are simply equivalent. But it might be, too, that they represent significantly different kinds of weakness. (After all, the Hunger Artist's public image and the panther are seeming to shape up, for us, as embodiments of significantly different ideals of strength.) If that is so, then they stand in a foil relation to each other, and we would be confronted with a yet distinct (contrasting) form of contrast, which we could label foil (f).

If "foil (f)" is actually at work in the story, it would surely be thematically significant; if it turns out, on examination, to be a phantom, that fact would be thematically significant as well. It would be worth thinking this out.

B.   Does a grasp of such issues help us see what the public image of the Hunger Artist might be taken "to represent," and "the kind of thing" the panther might be relevantly taken to be an "example of"?

Might the audience's shift in the category of object or spectacle that earns their admiration - whether grudging and limited in the case of the Hunger Artist in the old days or spontaneous and tenacious in the case of the panther in the new era - be a symptom of a change in values at work within the culture at large? Put in parallel terms: if someone shifts from one "object of identification" (point of reference for defining "the sort of person he is") to another, what changes in hopes and disappointments can we infer might be at work in this?

Might it, that is, be possible after all to go beyond the mere fact of their change to some sense of the "underpinnings" of it?

IF we get that far, we would at least be in a position to stand back and look around us to see if we might be able to locate, in our present society, or its recent history, some instance of a similar sort of change. In other words, it might be possible to discover that the story presents us with a "figure of" (a metaphorical picture, a symbol of) something the author thinks is worthy of attention in our own situation.

This, in turn, might redirect our attentions in considering what the thematic center of gravity of the story turns upon - not so much the Hunger Artist or the panther, but the crowd, who (on this view) would be the "stand in for" us.

More remotely still, the story could be seen to be, on the level of the literal events of the story, about the shift of values in the culture "embodied in" the changing tastes of the audience and, on the figurative (or "pointed to") level, about a watershed development in the history of our culture.

IF we could then give a plausible account of why someone might regard such a development as worth our attention, we'd have good grounds for believing we were in touch with the theme of the work: the story's importance, the rationale one might have for putting forward such a case for our considered reflection. Theme, in other words, can be considered as the answer to the question: why should we make the thought-experiment that the story consists in?

Now to your second reading.

As you carry it out, see what happens if you approach it with the above curiosities actively in mind. This means you shoud first briefly review what we have been through.  Can you make a sketch outline of the main questions we said the story generates?  In your reading be on the lookout for

Do not read further in this Study Guide until you have completed your second reading.

Your third reading:   focusing for writing.

Here your task will be to study with a fine-toothed comb the exact language and micro-details of the final two paragraphs of the story. This will involve, particularly in the description of the panther, a careful consideration of the imagery and the abstractions Kafka deploys in conveying the salient facts about this creature - i.e., the particulars that account for the audience's fascination with it.

What is the panther's attitude towards his situation?

What "streams from" the panther's jaws? 

What does "ardent" mean?

What particular facts are offered as the basis for the panther's attitude towards his situation?

What does the concept of "hunger" have to do with all this?

What is the logical relation between the concepts of "hunger" and "appetite"?  (Is there a particular sense of the term "hunger" in which the two terms are synonymous?  Is there a particular sense of the term "hunger" in which one of the two terms is more general than the other?)

 When you have finished your third reading, go to the Writing Assignment on this story.

 You may also be curious to check out some links to Kafka sites on the Web.

  Suggestions are welcome.  Please send your comments to .

   Contents copyright © 1999 by Lyman A. Baker

Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.

  This page last updated 15 January 1999.