Illustration by Katharina Davoudian
March 2, 2021
I was starving when I read Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist.” This is different than being hungry: where hunger pounds at your ribcage, loud and violent, starvation quietly settles across your body, resigned. Hunger motivates you toward action; starvation convinces you you’d be fine if you never ate again, as long as you don’t have to do anything else either.
During my struggle with eating disorder, everything became exhausting – and I mean everything, even watching Netflix from the comfort of my couch. Yet Kafka’s prose energized me. I found myself rereading “A Hunger Artist,” circling phrases that revealed some profound truth I had failed to articulate to my worried, uncomprehending friends: “He alone knew…how easy it was to starve,” Kafka writes of the titular hunger-artist, “It was the easiest thing in the world.” My excitement grew as I realized that this great writer had once starved himself, too, and in this moment I was connected to genius.
I leapt eagerly into the large body of scholarship arguing that Kafka, an artist so important that he has an adjective named after him, suffered from anorexia. His letters, his diaries, his fiction – all of it trembled with the weight of his affliction, our affliction. I reasoned that if Kafka had an eating disorder, then maybe I wasn’t suffering because I was “frivolous” or “vain” – words that are so often used to talk about traditionally female struggles.
I am ashamed to say that I grasped hungrily at “A Hunger Artist,” at Kafka’s depiction of a defeminized anorexia.
In Kafka’s story, a hunger artist is locked in a cage without food for forty days. His starvation is a public spectacle witnessed by fascinated crowds; his self-flagellation is lauded and rewarded. At the peak of his career, the hunger artist’s “magnificent productions” are “cheered by thousands;” the well-fed masses are enchanted by his fleshless frame, his poking button-ribs and sharp smile of a collarbone.
Kafka depicts the anorexic man as an artist who starves himself according to “the honour code of his art.” Even when his audience loses interest, he remains hopelessly devoted to his craft, giving new meaning to the phrase starving artist: “Try and explain the art of starving! It needs to be felt, it’s not something that can be explained,” the hunger-artist laments. Kafka does not see his hero as the “victim” of an “illness” – words I used to describe myself as I struggled to recover from my eating disorder. No, Kafka’s hunger artist does not want to be cured; to him, starvation is not a symptom, but a product. His body of work is literally his body.
“Kafka’s hunger artist does not want to be cured; to him, starvation is not a symptom, but a product. His body of work is literally his body.”
Kafka’s hunger artist starves himself in service of a lofty, even sacred vocation, creating a model of male anorexia tied to not only artistry but also spirituality and monastic discipline. The hunger artist starves for exactly forty days, Christ-like, as the “heavens” watch, casting down benevolent wishes to “this pitiable martyr.”
This discourse of male anorexia is wildly different than how we speak about female self-starvation, which is often hidden beneath dangerous pseudonyms like “dieting,” or worse, “self-care,” and is seen as a habit of privilege, even a luxury. A woman’s anorexia is often dismissed as upper-class malaise, rather than revered as “the lofty endeavour, the good will, the great self-denial” of Kafka’s hunger artist.
“A woman’s anorexia is often dismissed as upper-class malaise, rather than revered as ‘the lofty endeavour, the good will, the great self-denial’ of Kafka’s hunger artist.”
Notably, Kafka does not explicitly discuss female anorexia, yet the story’s gendered implications still exist, made even more evident by this ellipsis. At the time Kafka was writing, “fasting girls” were already a major phenomenon. The real-life female equivalent of Kafka’s hunger artist, a “fasting girl” could survive for extended periods of time without food, a feat which she claimed was due to religious fervor, not mental illness. Kafka’s decision to make his hunger artist a singularly male character although “fasting girls” were a fixture of Victorian culture feels strangely intentional. Clearly, Kafka depicts male anorexia as somehow separate from female anorexia.
The intentions of “fasting girls” were a subject of much debate in the 19th century. Were these women fasting in service of a noble spiritual goal, or was their refusal to eat a womanly weakness, a symptom of hysteria? Fasting girls were given one of two diagnoses: anorexia mirabilis – in which fasting is seen as a divine miracle, a triumph of asceticism – or anorexia nervosa – in which fasting is a hysterical pathology, often present in particularly independent or stubborn women. Kafka’s male hunger artist emblematizes anorexia mirabilis, offering a neat answer to the “fasting girls” debate: a fasting woman was nervosa; a fasting man, mirabilis.
“A Hunger Artist” ends with the debasement of Kafka’s smaller-than-life hero: he is now locked in a neglected cage at the circus, where spectators stroll by without noticing his emaciated body buried in the hay. He is as close to nonexistence as a person can get; yet absurdly, he is empowered. He is exactly where he wants to be. This is a problematic ending for a character with a chronic mental illness, yet it also feels deeply unjust. My eating disorder made me feel trapped, while the hunger artist’s enables him to feel free. Even when suffering, he has agency. After all, he chose his cage, locked it himself.
An anorexic woman’s cage is not a choice: it is her birthright. She clings to the bright metal bars as they tighten around her; they are fashioned from a society that intuits thinness as an automatic marker of her social currency; from a multi-billion dollar diet industry; from a culture that told her that to gain value, she must shrink; from the majority of women who, at any given time, are actively trying to lose weight.
“An anorexic woman’s cage is not a choice: it is her birthright…from a culture that told her that to gain value, she must shrink.”
How to escape a cage gifted to us by our mothers, sisters, friends, mentors; a cage passed on like a legacy? Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” leaves no room for women and their complex history of fasting and fat-shaming – and for this, it fails profoundly.
Years later, I read the story again, no longer starving but still nursing a fraught relationship with my body. This time, it lost its appeal. What made me like it the first time around – it’s masculinization of eating disorder – now made it seem lustreless, simplistic, overly concerned with its own gravity.
“A Hunger Artist” may satisfy a very specific male reader. However, I think the average woman – who is wearied and disillusioned by a lifetime of celebrating starving bodies – will likely dismiss it as sparse and unnuanced. She will be left frustrated; hungry.
Fichter MM. “Franz Kafkas Magersucht [Franz Kafka’s anorexia nervosa]”. Fortschritte der Neurologie-Psychiatrie, 1988, 56(7):231-238.
Heywood, Leslie. “The Metaphysics of the Flame: Fasting Girls, Kafka’s Letters to Felice, and “A Hunger Artist”.” Dedication to Hunger: The Anorexic Aesthetic in Modern Culture, University of California Press, 1996.
Kafka, Franz. “A Hunger Artist.” Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Penguin Classics, 2015.
Martin, Crescent B.; Herrick, Kirsten A.; Sarafrazi, Neda; Ogden, Cynthia L. “Attempts to Lose Weight Among Adults in the United States, 2013–2016.” National Centre for Health Statistics, 2018, No. 313.
Isabel Armiento is an MA student of English literature at the University of Toronto, where she works at The Varsity newspaper and is the co-founder and Managing Editor of Mnerva Literary Journal. Her creative work can be found in Oyster River Pages, Lines + Stars, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere.