2024/07/24 - 07:34

Franz Kafka's Ein Hungerkünstler: Metaphor of Conflict

by Joan M. Wolk, Librarian, Baltimore, Maryland

The short story, Ein Hungerkünstler, depicts a hunger artist in a cage without any reference to a specific time or place. The only piece of furniture in the cage is a clock, which strikes on the hour, but does not tick. Card players, passer-bys, and butchers watch the hunger artist to prevent him from eating any food. The hunger artist sings and tells jokes to ensure them that he has not eaten, and boasts that "fasting is the easiest thing in the world." When asked if he would like to eat, he would become enraged and rattle the cage. After 40 days of fasting, the hunger artist, is led out of the cage by tearful women at the sight of his emaciated body to a meager meal. As the crowds dwindled with interest in him, the hunger artist decides to leave the employ of the impresario for a traveling circus where he could fast for an indefinite period of time. There, the hunger artist receives spotty attention, but fasts well beyond the 40-day limit; the placards had even lost track of his fast. One day, an overseer discovers the dirty straw and that the hunger artist is near death. The hunger artist begs for forgiveness, to which the overseer replies that his fasting is admired. When the hunger artist states that he could not help it, the overseer asks "why," to which the hunger artist replies, "because I could not find the food I liked." The hunger artist dies; he and the dirty straw are swept out of the cage and he is replaced with a panther. The panther devours meat, is admired by the crowds, and the overseer proclaims that "order has been restored."

Franz Kafka's Ein Hungerkünstler was first published in the 1922 October issue of the Frankfurter Rundschau, and was also mentioned in his Testament as one of his writings not to be destroyed. In June 1923, Kafka could no longer work due to tuberculosis of the lungs and the larynx, and he received his pension from the Worker's Accident Insurance Office in Prague. In the early Summer of that year, Kafka visited his sister and her children vacationing by the Baltic Sea and met Dora Dymant, who had decided to live independently of her Polish Orthodox family. In July 1923, Kafka overcame his indecision to live independent of his family to devote his energy to writing and to live with Dora in a Berlin suburb. He had attempted to live alone several times, but later returned to his parent's house.  Kafka spent nine months with Dora, and in that time, he requested her hand in marriage only to be denied by her father. In 1923, the volume, Ein Hungerkünstler, which consisted of four short stories1, was sent to the new firm, Die Schmiede, with the assistance of Max Brod for publication, and augment Kafka's modest pension.  During this time, Kafka struggled with his illness. Kafka weighed about 100 pounds naked, had difficulty eating and speaking, and could only communicate with Dora and his friend Klopstock by writing on "slips" of paper.2   In addition, Kafka could not eat any solid food or even drink liquids.  Klopstock, commented that Kafka was literally starving to death as he was correcting proofs of his volume, Ein Hungerkünstler, and cried with tears rolling down his face.3 It is ironic, as Karl (1991) notes, that Kafka had, "consciously or not, placed himself in the same position as the hunger artist: starving, watching people eat and drink, gaining his pleasure from observing, knowing he was holding himself back, in this instance physically unable to participate" (755).  On 3 June1924, a month short of his forty-first birthday, Kafka died in a sanatorium near Vienna weighing less than 90 pounds, and was buried on 11 June in the Jewish cemetery in Prague-Strashnitz.

Kafka depicts a hunger artist in the act of "hungering".4  The dilemma of the hunger artist is that he not only refuses to eat in the practice of his art, but also because he cannot find any food he liked. Several studies have drawn parallels between Kafka's fictional hunger artist with real-life hunger artists5 while others regard Kafka's Ein Hungerkünstler as an allegory of the artist and ascetic saint.6  It is significant to note that the Modernist sensibility at the beginning of the 20th century influenced Kafka's study of psychology even though Kafka was not a Freudian.7  More specifically, Ryan (1991) notes that Brentanist thought characterized Ein Hungerkünstler as evidenced in the third-person narration (109). It is the author's objective to discuss Franz Kafka's Ein Hungerkünstler from a psychodynamic perspective to demonstrate that it is a metaphor of conflict because the short story is a conundrum. I shall demonstrate that there is no relationship between the hunger artist's practice of his art with his reason for not eating other than conflict. Thus, I shall elucidate the dilemma of the hunger artist by reconstructing Kafka's personal conflict.

Kafka experienced intrapsychic conflict resulting from the objective fear of his parents. His conscience had so internalized parental authority that he was fixated on a way of life that if transgressed would involve retribution from his parents. Brod (1995) discussed the significance parental authority had for Kafka, and raises two questions: "What did Kafka need his father for?" or better put, "Why was he not able to break away from him, although he adopted a critical attitude toward him…" (22-23). Although Kafka's difficult relationship with his father, Hermann, is evident in his Brief an den Vater,  Kafka also disavowed his mother, Julie, for assuming a weak and ineffective role to protect him from Hermann's authoritarian dominance in the family.  As Karl (1991) notes, Kafka's criticism of Julie was an attempt to deal with his negative feelings towards Hermann (197). Kafka wrote:

                        Even if your [Hermann's] method of upbringing might

in some unlikely case have set me on my own feet by

means of producing defiance, dislike, or even hate in me, Mother canceled that out again by kindness, by talking sensibly…and I was again driven back into your orbit, which I might otherwise have broken out of, to your advantage and to my own.8

Yet, as Neumarkt (1970) states: "Kafka's ambivalent relationship with his father is not as psychologically relevant as that to his mother" (112).  Kafka, who identified with his mother, and sought to rescue her from Hermann succumbed to Hermann's wrath to result in conflict about sexual orientation. As Neumarkt noted in Freud:

The boy represses the love for his mother by putting himself in her play, by identifying himself with her, and by taking his own person as a model through the similarity of which he is guided in the selection of his love object. He thus becomes homosexual.9

Thus, the issue of Kafka's sexual orientation, which has been discussed in Kafka literature, deserves mention.

Neumarkt (1970) does not consider Kafka to have been an active homosexual, but rather suggests a "latent propensity" (113).  Mecke (1982) surmises that Kafka was seduced or raped by a homosexual between the ages of 14 and 15 (20).  The evidence that Mecke provides in Kafka's writings might well support the fact that Kafka's homosexual tendencies, if it can be called that, might very well have been his coming to terms with his sexuality. The relationship between Kafka's inability to distinguish different types of music10 with sexuality is also noted.  Mecke (1982) links Kafka's unmusicality with gay sex at the turn of the century (76) while Corngold (2007) notes that Kafka associated it with his writing as indicated in a letter dated July 1920 to Milena Jesenská (85). Although Corngold  notes that homoerotic images permeate Kafka's fiction, Mecke argues "there is no doubting the evidence" that Kafka belonged to a minority of homosexuals among heterosexuals.  Mecke (1982) interprets Ein Hungerkünstler as Kafka's desire to be free of his homosexual compulsions and to find acceptance in a new natural state, a heterosexual relationship, with Dora Dymant (8). Despite Mecke's claim, Detsch (1985) argues there is no evidence to support it (346).  Beicken (1999) has summarized the issue of sexual orientation in Kafka literature,11 but explains it in terms of the (male) gaze as scopophilia or desire for pleasure in Betrachtung (1913), Zerstreutes Hinausschaun, Das Unglück des Junggesellen, and Beschreibung eines Kampfes (3). He concludes that the gaze in Kafka is a means of protagonists to "seek orientation, contact, and affiliation" in a patriarchal society to compensate with conflict about sexual orientation. However, he has not examined the gaze in Ein Hungerkünstler where the hunger artist is voyeur and exhibit, who seeks contact from passer-bys in the practice of his art, but also repulses them in spite of it.   Since Kafka literature is not in agreement about Kafka's sexual orientation, it seems more important to elucidate the conflict Kafka experienced in sex and relationships, which resulted from his discomfort about body and sex. 

In the Brief an den Vater, Kafka described his inferiority about his physique compared to that of his father12 , and in a diary entry of 29 December 1911, Kafka revealed his discomfort with his dress and body.13  Pawel relates that Kafka "hated his body" and feared "physical intimacy," and with respect to sex,  notes Kafka's disgust of the physical aspect of sex as he found it dirty, degrading, depressing but exciting.14 As Wilson (1963) notes:

So, at an early stage sex is associated with the idea of violating ones' natural  fastidiousness, the desire not to be touched, the dislike of dirt and alien flesh. (285).

Despite this, Kafka, like most of his contemporaries, regularly went to bordellos, seduced working girls, and picked up women in cafes.15 Yet, Karl (1991) notes Kafka's disclosure to Milena about "his sexual disgust when he was with prostitutes" (87). Kafka's promiscuous behavior can be related to Don Juanism, which is evidenced in an "unusual or talented man, who is still not unusual enough to make his mark as a creator, a thinker, etc. and turns to sexual conquest to achieve self-respect."16 Kafka's promiscuity is not only symptomic of Prague culture, but also suggests conflict and frustration with his sexuality in a patriarchal society. Yet, it is must be noted that Kafka's promiscuity contrasts his esteem for marriage. As Brod (1995) wrote:

Franz Kafka had the highest conception of marriage. In the Brief an den Vater,  he writes about it in these terms: To get married, to found a family, to accept all the children that arrive, to maintain them in this uncertain world, and even to lead them a little on their way is, in my opinion, the utmost that a man can ever succeed in doing (139).

Despite Kafka's esteem for marriage and a family, his father, Hermann, vehemently opposed his son's wishes citing a lack of adequate income.17 Hermann's opposition most likely fueled Kafka's inferiority to be a suitable husband characterized by his vacillation between commitment and broken engagements to reveal a conflicted sensibility toward a monogamous relationship.  Thus, the conflict Kafka experienced between the need to belong and/or reject the world of his father and society can be correlated with Kafka's approach to food. 

          Benbow (2006) argues that food in Kafka is a critique of the "gender hegemony of his day," and that the consumption of meat signifies masculine privilege while fasting and vegetarianism represent its rejection (347-348).  Karl (1991) states:

Kafka developed an eating regimen that eliminated all meat, which he associated with Hermann. It seems certain that Kafka's distaste for meat was linked to his disgust with Hermann's propensity for it, and further, his disgust for Hermann's father as a slaughterer (268).

The carnivorous panther, who replaces the dead hunger artist, suggests patriarchal society cannot be subjugated as the overseer proclaims "order has been restored." Yet, one might suggest an inverse relationship between Hermann's consumption of meat and Kafka's vegetarianism with the lack of parental acceptance received.  Brod (1995) wrote: "the odd thing is that even as he [Kafka] was growing older he still wished above all for his father's approval, which could never be granted" (30).  Kafka, like the hunger artist,  received little recognition for his art. And like the hunger artist, who could never be satisfied with "any" food, so too, Kafka displayed a persistent need for family approval, which obstructed separation from them, and his desire to commit to a monogamous relationship. The connection between food and marriage is further evidenced in Julie's attempt to have Felice Bauer coax Kafka to a more hearty diet18 in the same way that the passerbys coaxed the hunger artist to eat. Since the hunger artist would become enraged when asked if he wanted to eat, no one knew what he wanted. When Julie asked Kafka to contact his Uncle Alfred, Kafka replied: "…he is a complete stranger to me, misunderstands me utterly and has no idea of what I want or need…" To which, Julie replied: "Well then, nobody understands you. I suppose I am also a stranger to you, and so is your father."19  A similar parallel indicative of Kafka's estrangement from his family is evidenced in Hermann's invitation to his son to play cards as noted in a diary entry 25 October 1921.

My parents were playing cards; I sat apart, a perfect stranger; my father asked me to take a hand, or at least to look on; I made some sort of excuse. What is the meaning of these refusals, oft repeated since my childhood? I could have availed myself of invitations to take part in social, even, to an extent, public life; everything required of me I should have done, if not well, at least in middling fashion; even cardplaying would probably not have bored me overmuch - yet I refused.20

Just as Kafka rejects overtures to interaction, so too does he use the motif of the cage to signify social isolation21 from the card players whom the hunger artist watches eat and play.  Brod (1995) notes that Kafka disapproved of his tendency to loneliness and that his highest goal was to have a life in the social community (95-96).  It seems apparent that Kafka lived ensnared in conflict between the need for isolation and meaningful interaction. In a sense, both Kafka and the hunger artist exhibit a "primal scream" for understanding. And both Kafka and the hunger artist not only torture others, who are horrified by their refusal to eat and to be sociable, but they also torment themselves by blaming others for their suffering and the inability of others to know what they want. Thus, the issue of masochism deserves mention.

Norris (1978) notes:

The masochist disavows his own need and will to suffer by turning the execution of his suffering over to someone else by means of a contract. Since the contract still implies his consent, the masochist attempts to undermine the volitional element by signing a "blank paper," like the hunger artist, who, upon joining the circus, avoided reading the conditions of his contract (437)

It seems though that the dilemma of the hunger artist is not as much related to masochism as it is rooted in conflict. As Waldeck (1972) notes:

The masochistic significance of fasting is complicated, however, by the fact, that it represents the desire to suffer masochistically at the same time it expresses the suffering of the failure to find real fulfillment in this direction (150).

The hunger artist's dilemma is that he is bound to a contract, which not only binds the hunger artist to his "art of hungering," but is also in conflict and denial of human limitations. The hunger artist cannot find fulfillment because he is in denial of reality. In a similar way, Kafka was bound to an "unwritten family contract," that is, his need for Hermann's approval and Julie's nurturance. And Kafka's promiscuity underscores a conflicted sensibility towards sex and marriage, which might have been achieved by separating from Hermann and Julie in domicile. Thus, the conflict experienced by Kafka and the hunger artist characterize their inability to accept limitations in order to achieve fulfillment. Kafka's attempt to resolve the splintered conflict between marriage, family, and profession was to displace his rejection of patriarchal society onto eating habits and to sublimate instinctual drives into promiscuous behavior and writing.

 Franz Kafka's Ein Hungerkünstler is a metaphor of conflict as it depicts an existential puzzle in the pursuit of one's profession.  The clock in the cage traditionally symbolizes vanity and mortality, yet the fact that it strikes on the hour, but does not tick suggests an immobilization of life. The hunger artist's separation from the impresario due to a prescribed 40-day fast is his attempt to practice his art without limitations as demonstrated by the placards. Yet, the hunger artist's total commitment to the practice of his art ends in a pointless death because he could not find "any" food he liked. For Kafka, it is not that he could not find "any" partner, but rather Hermann and prospective father-in-laws did not think he would be a good husband. Kafka's conflicted relationship with his parents most likely fueled broken engagements and letters negating his own worthiness to marry in defense of his desire to become a writer. In effect, Kafka's last months with Dora was his final attempt to achieve a balance as husband and writer independent of his family. Two years before his death, Kafka reflected in a diary entry 23 January 1922: …Fretful that my life till now has been merely marking time, has progressed at most in the sense that decay progresses in a rotten tooth. Kafka and the hunger artist marked time in an ambiguous seesaw of conflict between food and hunger, promiscuity and broken engagements, isolation and interaction, in effect, all or nothing. Therein, lies the dilemma, the conundrum of their estranged existences.


1  Erstes Leid; Eine kleine Frau; Ein Hungerkünstler; Josefine, die Sängerin, oder das Volk der Mäuse

2 Karl 1991, 751. 

3 Ibid., 751. 

4 Steinhauer 1962, 37. Kafka calls him an artist in hungering (ein hungernder Künstler) and probably had in mind Wilhelm Raabe's well-known novel, Der Hunger Pastor, which dealt with a clergyman whose life is devoted to the pursuit of the ideal, i.e., a pastor of hungering.

5 Mitchell 1987; Oye 2004; Rodlauer 1989.

6 Mahony 1978; Rolleston 1995; Sheppard 1973; Stallman 1983; Steinhauer 1962.

7 Karl, 1991, 111. Ryan 1991, 100-01 notes:

Kafka's exposure to various new psychologies was broad. In high school, he studied philosophy under a teacher devoted to the psychophysics of Weber and Fechner, and empirical psychology was the topic of the final year's curriculum. His biology teacher had been strongly influenced by the ideas of Ernst Mach. Kafka read Fechner in 1903. He took two courses on recent philosophy at the University of Prague, one given by Anton Marty, a pupil of Franz Brentano's in Summer 1904, the other by a pupil of Marty's in the Winter 1904-05. From 1903-05, Kafka belonged to the "Brentano Circle", a group that met regularly, where details of the new philosophies and psychologies were debated. Kafka also attended Bertha Fanta's salon from1904-1914, in which empiricist psychology was discussed, but the group also discussed Freud's analytic theory in 1912. Kafka did study Freud's writings quite closely and even went through something of a Freudian phase in his work as in The Judgment, 1912.

8 Kafka 1953, 44-47.

9 Freud 1962, 99.

10 Brod 1995, 115.

Here let me remark that Kafka, as if to compensate for the remarkable gift he had of musical speech, had no talent for pure music. …Kafka played no instrument. He once told me he couldn't tell the difference between The Merry Widow and Tristan and Isolde.

11 Beicken 1999, 9-10. Popp and Vietinghoff-Scheel question Mecke's claim of Kafka's sexual orientation, and Woods criticized Tiefenbrun for her study of Kafka's "homosexual orientation" based on his rationalization of the pros and cons of marriage.

12 Kafka 1953, 19.

At that time, and at that time in every way, I would have needed encouragement. I was, after all, weighed down by your mere physical presence. I remember, for instance, how we often undressed in the same bathing hut. There was I, skinny, weakly, slight; you strong, tall, broad. Even inside the hut I felt a miserable specimen, and what's more, not only in your eyes but in the eyes of the whole world, for you were for me the measure of all things.

13 Kafka 1976, 159.

… it was only as a result of giving it insufficient thought that I endured always having to go around dressed in the wretched clothes which my parents had made for me by one customer after another, longest by a tailor in Nusle. I naturally noticed - it was obvious - that I was unusually badly dressed, and even had an eye for others who were well dressed, but for years on end my mind did not succeed in recognizing in my clothes the cause of my miserable appearance. Since even at that time, more in tendency than in fact, I was on the way to underestimating myself, I was convinced that it was only on me that clothes assumed this appearance, first looking as stiff as a board, then hanging in wrinkles. I did not want new clothes at all, for if I was going to look ugly in any case, I wanted at least to be comfortable and also to avoid exhibiting the ugliness of the new clothes to the world that had grown accustomed to the old ones.

14 Pawel 1984, 82-84.

15 Pawel 1984, 179-180. According to the Prager Tagblatt November 18, 1906, Prague had 35 public brothels, about 500 full-time and some 6,000 part-time prostitutes. Brod 1995, 140-142 also relates that Kafka did father a son by a certain lady M. M. though Kafka never knew; the son later died.

16Wilson 1963, 288-289.

17Karl, 1991, 363.

18Norris, 1978, 445-446.


19 Brod 1995, 143-44.

20Kafka, 1976, 395.

21 Foulkes 1967.


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Published: 21th June 2009

Revision: 2021/01/09 - 23:40 - © Mauro Nervi

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