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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 was first published in the periodical Die neue Rundschau in 1922 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.
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[who?], 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[who?] 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[who?] 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[who?] 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.
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".