We as human beings owe a large part of the reasoning to our actions to be because of the fact that we are human. The codes ingrained into our species direct our way of living, and more importantly, the reactions we have to different circumstances. Franz Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist” demonstrates the complexity of human desire and how these desires drive us to hold its importance over the basic necessities of life. In the story, a skeletal man struggles for relevance in the world by starving himself for long periods of time, which puts his mental and physical health in danger. The story addresses not only the desire for fame and success but also themes of greed leading to death and isolationism. Kafka’s modernist short story not only expresses the realities of human desires through a desperate artist striving for attention but also reveals the conflicts and psychological needs of the author himself.
Throughout the story, the man is in conflict with people who either don’t understand him or are unimpressed because they think his act is fake. His desire is not only to surpass his record of 40 days but to impress the people witnessing his act, “It was the easiest thing in the world. He made no secret of this, yet people did not believe him, at best they set him down as modest, most of them, however, thought he was out for publicity or else was some kind of cheat who found it easy to fast because he had discovered a way of making it easy, and then had the impudence to admit the fact, more or less. He had to put up with all that, and in the course of time had got used to it, but his inner dissatisfaction always rankled…” Through this quote, it is evident that he holds the opinions and acceptance of others more important than the difficulty of the action itself. Like many people, he works for the outcome and effect of his work rather than the satisfaction of the work itself. The hunger artist is a prime, dark example of the human necessity of social acceptance and understanding. With this piece, Kafka, reveals the id of the hunger artist, who continues to compromise his health and good judgment in order to gain satisfaction, “Why should he be cheated of the fame he would get for fasting longer, for being not only the record hunger artist of all time, which presumably he was already but for beating his own record by a performance beyond human imagination since he felt that there were no limits to his capacity for fasting? His public pretended to admire him so much, why should it have so little patience with him; if he could endure fasting longer, why shouldn’t the public endure it?” His anger stems from the public’s fake admiration and their doubts about his capacity. His goal is to be relevant and known to people, which further supports our human desire for acknowledgment and praise.
Not only does “The Hunger Artist” describe a man at his rawest, greediest form, but it also gives insight into Kafka’s own thoughts on a human’s intangible needs. Throughout his life, Kafka did not have a picturesque relationship with his family. Like “The Hunger Artist”, many of his works have dark themes and deep, psychological meanings. Thus, the worthlessness he felt in his childhood correlates to the artist’s painful journey to reach an understanding with the public. This piece of work truly comes from a dark time in Kafka’s life as he was also struggling with an illness that rendered him unable to speak or eat solid foods. However, even though Kafka was quite literally starving to death, he continued to edit and revise “The Hunger Artist”. His own experiences clearly spread in his work and offered parallels such as the artist compromising his health to gain relevance and Kafka sacrificing his health to continue writing. Their behaviors demonstrate a desperateness for the gratification that comes with their work, a desperateness that surpasses their need to stay alive.
Through the psychoanalytic lens, Kafka is able to demonstrate how desperation for acceptance can completely alter one’s mindset and lifestyle in his short story. Additionally, his work also provides an insight into his own beliefs and motivations regarding his writing. The artist’s frantic behavior intensifies as the story goes on, signifying his need for the fame he believes he deserves. Greed is known to be a human error but is truthfully unavoidable because of everyone’s desire to be content with their life before death. The Hunger Artist, by walking the line between life and death wished to impress others but only receives pity and concern in return. Much like the fictional artist, Kafka was compromising his own physical health at the time to write of this desolate man, who later proves to be more of a reflection to Kafka than a separate entity. Not only does “The Hunger Artist” provide a deep understanding of the struggle for success and acceptance from others, but also of the intricacies of the human mind regarding how far we will go to achieve our deepest desire: to reach happiness.