Similar Themes in Franz Kafka’s the Hunger Artist and in the Penal Colony

Published: 2021-09-16 03:25:09
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The Corrosion of the Good Ol’ Days
There are plenty of connections readers can make between Franz Kafka’s two stories, “The Hunger Artist” and “In the Penal Colony” despite obvious differences. “The Hunger Artist” is about a man who claims to be an artist in fasting. He travels across Europe to have people gawk over his tiny body until he dies, forgotten in a cage in the circus. “In the Penal Colony” was a bit more action compared to “The Hunger Artist”. A traveller from Europe is invited to the penal colony to witness an execution, where an officer and enthusiast of the prior Commandant gives him a tour and explanation of the machine. After this, the Traveller deems the method inhumane and as a result, the Officer offers himself to die by the machine. From these stories, readers can see similar themes of the loss of faith, deterioration, and ultimately self-sacrifice.
In relation to the art in “The Hunger Artist” and the machine/execution in “In the Penal Colony”, both are depicted as dying out. Once a popular form of entertainment, “the whole town took a lively interest in the hunger artist”, as Kafka wrote about the glory days. Then the artist was renowned and seen as an exciting attraction, but later in the story the crowd is always scurrying by him on their way to the menagerie. He had not seen the desertion coming, and when his usual tours were not meeting his needs he signs himself up to join the circus. This, he believes, will bring him the fame he deserves, but these people give him the same amount of attention he received before. The loss of faith in this old tradition can be seen the best in “In the Penal Colony” through the Officer explaining to the Traveller of how the executions used to happen. The Officer explains the hype of execution day to the Traveller with, “The entire valley was overflowing with people, even a day before the execution.” The Commandant would lie the condemned down onto the machine himself, which was seen as a huge honor. But he ends his monologue of pride for the machine by talking of its decline since the Old Commandant died. He even states that there once had to be a railing around the pit because of the surplus of spectators pushing forward to see, but it was taken down a while ago. During the execution the Traveller was invited to witness, even, he is the only guest.
As a result of the loss of faith there is also common theme in the deterioration of fasting as an art and the complex methods of the penal colony’s justice system. They are outdated and obsolete, and therefore the rest of society pays no mind as to making sure they are well kept. Kafka’s machine in “In the Penal Colony” is in rough condition. The Officer describes the machine as “filthy as a pigsty” to the Traveller. During the Old Commandant’s reign, the Officer was given the approval to indulge on new parts for the apparatus with every execution. But now the New Commandant won’t even buy a new strap for the machine unless the Officer provides the broken strap as evidence. Once he does this, it takes over a week to get the new strap, which is made of “an inferior brand.” Finally, as the Officer is subject to its procedure, the last nail is driven into the coffin when screws and wheels start to fall out of the machine.
In “The Hunger Artist”, the deterioration is just as prevalent; but in this story it is much more focused on the deterioration of the artist himself. And it is seen both physically and mentally. Physically, it is expected because of his profession for him to be frail and weak. After the artist has finished his 40 day fast and is being lifted out of the cage by the impresario, “his body was hollowed out; his legs in a spasm of self-preservation clung close to each other at the knees,” Kafka writes. But while also being weak in reality, the fasting also crumbles the connection between him and society. He is moody, and sometimes will even be thrown into such a fit of rage that he will shakes the bars of his cage. It is even noted that he has been told that “his melancholy was probably caused by fasting.”
The loss of faith and deterioration lead to the self-sacrifice of characters from the stories. Both characters are also similarly killed by the tradition they had clung so dearly to. In “The Hunger Artist”, the artist finally dies of starvation. The Officer in “In the Penal Colony” meets his faith at the hands of the very machine that he had seen hundreds of condemned executed on. There is no use fighting for their cause at this point. They realize that things will never be as gold as they were during their peak.
These martyr-like deaths are almost ironic as well. The artist has just fasted longer than anyone has ever been able to, but yet after a period no one was bothered to keep count. Before he dies, he is only found by employees of the circus under a pile of hay because they were curious as to why the cage was empty. The machine that the Officer has put himself in has malfunctioned because of the neglect, and he ends up getting stabbed by the needles instead of being inscribed as intended. The Traveller notices this and here Kafka writes, “This was not the torture the Officer wished to attain. It was murder, pure and simple.” It was as if his dying wish was to have the apparatus perform one final execution, and even then it is not properly completed.
In conclusion, the stories portray a lot of common messages. From the battle between tradition values and modern ideas, both display a growing lack of support for the old ways. And because of this, destructive affects are forced upon the characters and objects in the two stories. Weaved in through symbolism that is so heavy these stories can almost be seen as allegories, Kafka effectively creates the process of an old art crumbling in its doomed attempt to keep up with the changing times.

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