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“I couldn’t find any food I liked”: Franz Kafka’s Criticism of Gender Norms in Fictional Works and Letters

By Solmaz Salehi

The protagonists of Franz Kafka’s letters and diary cannot escape this complex relationship with food and nourishment. Kafka charges eating in his personal and fictional life with meaning and power: he uses food and nourishment to criticize the gender hegemony in early twentieth-century Prague, which involved an inexplicit control over women by men, manifesting in males performing duties outside the house and women’s responsibilities being limited to inside the house. In “A Hunger Artist,” Kafka contrasts eating and fasting as a marker of difference between the fasting artist and the viewers of the art who eat with ease. Food and nourishment signify Gregor Samsa’s social isolation and transformed appetite in The Metamorphosis. In Letters to the Father, food and eating are linked with his father’s authority. In addition, the history of diet culture, eating habits, and simply the food one consumes are directly related to traditional gender roles. Therefore, eating functions as a way of ingesting the social beliefs and gender norms attached to the food. Consequently, for Kafka and his fictional male figures, a refusal to eat—or a refusal to eat a specific type of food—would be a refusal of the masculine beliefs and norms in society. As a result, by focusing on “A Hunger Artist,” The Metamorphosis, and Letters to the Father, the contrast between an insatiable appetite and fasting, as well as the type of food consumed—meat, dairy, or vegetarian diet—in these works, symbolizes an acceptance or rejection of traditional masculinity by the hunger artist, Gregor Samsa, and Franz Kafka himself. Kafka challenges the gender norms and demasculinizes the characters through their peculiar eating habits.

Both the hunger artist and Gregor eat in sites of social isolation: the hunger artist is in a cage and Gregor Samsa is in his room. In “A Hunger Artist,” the eponymous protagonist, who initially decided to fast for forty days, decides to prolong his refusal to eat. However, “people got used to the oddity” of his art, and as he continued to fast, he became his only spectator; his art and achievement were overlooked (261). Through his abstinence, the hunger artist is the “only spectator” of his art. The cage that confines the artist in his world also becomes a cell in which the hunger artist is allowed to reject the outside world, its rules, and its social norms. Maud Ellman draws a parallel between the hunger artist’s art and hunger strikes. She explains that hunger strikers reject “influx from the outer world” to imprison the body (93). The cage then symbolizes the hunger artist’s rejection of social norms. By staying inside the cage, he refuses to participate in the most humane activity: eating. Moreover, in this isolated world, the hunger artist regards food with a sense of disgust. After forty days of fasting, “the very thought of [food] made him feel nauseous” (“A Hunger Artist” 256). Not only does he reject the eating, but he also wishes for the audience to understand him and his rejection of these norms. However, he realizes that “it was impossible to fight this incomprehension, this world of incomprehension” (258). The artist’s repetition of “incomprehension” places an emphasis that he is depressed because of the spectators’s inability to understand him, not his confinement. In the end, he dies in the cage, starving, failing to impact the world of those who eat.

Similarly, in The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa is isolated from his family because of his physical form and the metamorphosis in his appetite. Gregor, who, similar to the hunger artist, dies of starvation, can no longer eat with his family at the dinner table. His sister brings him food spread “out on an old newspaper,” leaves the room, and turns the key, locking Gregor in his room to eat (109). Dining at a table with the family is a well-established social norm, so Gregor’s isolation from the norms is reinforced by his absence from the table. Additionally, Gregor’s enclosure at home is in itself a feminine act. In a traditional household, the male figure works and provides, and the female figure stays home. Although Gregor has been able to provide “a quiet life” for his family, he is now confined inside their house. As the family’s breadwinner, Gregor took the masculine role from his father. When Gregor can no longer work, the father takes over his masculine role as the breadwinner. Therefore, by staying inside his room, Gregor escapes his father and the masculine roles of the household, which emasculates him even further.

Kafka shows the hierarchy that exists in families during times of eating in The Metamorphosis and Letters to the Father. Due to his metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa loses his role as the family breadwinner and thus must withdraw from the family meals at the dining table. The family, now forced to take in three lodgers, allows the paying guests to eat at the dining table. Gregor’s father makes it clear that the place at the table is not obtainable by virtue or blood but by payment. In other words, the financial arrangement between Mr. Samsa and the three lodgers substitutes the natural family setting. Conversely, Kafka explains in Letters to the Father that his father, Hermann Kafka, looks powerful sitting at the dining table. Kafka describes his father, constantly linking his appetite to masculine power. Writing of his father’s physique, Franz notes, “I was already weighed down by your [Hermann’s] sheer bodily presence,” and that Hermann is a real Kafka in “strength, health, appetite, loudness of voice, eloquence, self-satisfaction, worldly superiority, stamina, presence of mind, understanding of human nature, a certain generosity” (24, 20). The father’s characteristics are a mixture of militaristic fatherhood and “masculine” strength as he encourages Franz to “eat heartily, especially when [he] drank beer” ( 23). Hermann Kafka’s strict rules, ways of parenting, and “masculine” diet creates shame in Franz Kafka. His father sees a voracious appetite and a diet of meat as indicators of masculinity. Nevertheless, Franz Kafka’s vegetarian diet and small appetite are a constant reminder that he cannot live up to his father’s masculine expectations. His father’s physique is the opposite of his own physical form. This lack of appetite and inability to fulfill his father’s wishes becomes a source of shame and isolation for Franz, similar to the isolation of Gregor Samsa from his family and the hunger artist from society.

The inability to consume “masculine food” also suggests that Kafka demasculinizes his male figures in these two works. Gregor is not able to enjoy the same food as his family. The sister tries to find appropriate food for her brother, but she ends up laying out selections of “half- rotten vegetables; bones left over from dinner with a little congealed white sauce […]; a cheese that a couple of days ago Gregor had declared to be unfit for human consumption […]” (The Metamorphosis 109). The food that he consumes, rotted and uncooked, should cause disgust. However, as Gregor loses his humanity, he eats the formerly inedible cheese with satisfaction. According to philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, milk products are often associated with feminine taste, and so is a lack of appetite towards meat (Rousseau 358). For instance, in Émile, the idealized woman “has preserved her feminine tastes; she likes milk and sweets; she likes pastry […] but not much meat” (358). Therefore, Gregor eating the disgusting dairy products emasculates and dehumanizes him simultaneously. In addition, Gregor begins to resemble a vegetarian, since he stops consuming meat. Feminist writer, Carol Adams, describes in her book The Sexual Politics of Meat that in some cultures, meat consumption asserts a man’s masculinity. Adams notes, “meat is a masculine food,” and women who serve the food at home give more generous portions to men (26, 28-29). His father, who already took Gregor’s job as the breadwinner, on the other hand, eats the meat in his meal at the dinner table. He becomes the epitome of a traditional masculine figure, while Gregor’s beetle form represents his withdrawal from masculine attributes.

The demasculinization of the hunger artist comes from his fasting, which,  in the nineteenth century, possessed a feminine connotation. Joan Jacobs Brumberg, a social historian, notes that devotional fasting was an activity in which women—and sometimes men—participated. It fell out of fashion during the Enlightenment, but women persisted in it during the nineteenth century (99). Brumberg further points out that fasting is also associated with a privatized hysteria of a disordered woman. Therefore, in “A Hunger Artist,” the protagonist, who refuses to eat, takes on this feminine role. The artist even confesses why he fasted. He says, “I couldn’t find any food I liked. If I had found any, believe me, I wouldn’t have made any fuss, and I would have eaten to my heart’s content” (262). The artist’s hysteric remark clarifies that he starved himself because of his lack of interest in the food around him. His suffering is not only a suffering that the audience and the reader cannot bear but also an alteration of human metabolism. He rejects the traditional diet in his confession; yet the story does not end with this rejection. It goes on until the death of the artist and his replacement with a wild animal. This confession further aligns him with feminine values. As mentioned before, the hunger artist is caged like an animal. The animal realm has supplanted the human realm, and the people who look at him are people on the way to see wild animals. After his death, the hunger artist is replaced with a panther, an animal that hunts and eats flesh. The panther represents masculinity, and the hunger artist’s fasting is an alternative to eating flesh, a masculine food.

There is another connection between the relationship of meat and masculinity, that of an outsider to traditional masculine norms. Adams points out that a man eating meat is a measure of “individual and societal virility” and a way to express male sexuality (26). Therefore, the refusal to eat meat by Kafka’s protagonists in his stories and letters places them men outside the main social context. Gregor is sorrowful for his lack of masculine appetite after being overthrown from the family dining table. On a similar note, the hunger artist watches the guards eat their breakfast with pleasure. The hunger artist “was happiest, however, when morning came and a lavish breakfast was brought for them at his own expense, on which they hurled themselves with the appetite of healthy men after a hard night’s work without sleep” (“A Hunger Artist” 254). A healthy man in this story has the appetite for a lavish breakfast, something the hunger artist lacks, therefore showing his lack of masculinity. In both cases, Gregor Samsa and the hunger artist do not have a large appetite, and they certainly do not have an appetite for meat. Their diet is juxtaposed with the male meat-eaters in the outside world. It marginalizes them. Adams further explains that in particular cultures, women are seen as second-class citizens and therefore have a second-class diet consisting of vegetables, fruits, and grains instead of meat (Adams 26). Kafka’s vegetarian diet, Gregor’s diet of rotten vegetables, and the hunger artist’s fasting inevitably puts them in Adams’ description of a feminized diet. Adams adds that giving up meat for men is a feminized act and a challenge towards “an essential part of the masculine role [by] opting for women’s food” (38). Thus, by adopting a feminine diet, the three figures reject the triangle connection Herman Kafka would approve of between masculinity, power, and meat, therefore, rejecting their masculine side.

This feminized diet of the protagonists in Kafka’s works contains little joyful moments and, in the end, costs the protagonists their lives. For instance, Gregor Samsa’s vegetarian diet leads to his lonely and dishonorable death. The narrator in The Metamorphosis explains:

It was an apple; straightaway it was followed by another; […]. [Mr. Samsa] had filled his pockets from the fruit bowl on the sideboard, and was hurling one apple after another, barely pausing to take aim. These little red apples rolled around on the floor as though electrified, often caroming into one another. […] one thrown a moment later, however, seemed to pierce [Gregor’s back].

(The Metamorphosis 125-26).

By the end of the novella, it becomes clear that Gregor’s death was a result of the rotting apple embedded in his back. Ironically, the rotting apple is also a part of Gregor’s diet of rotten vegetables, the same food that kept him alive. Mr. Samsa’s paternal aggression and attack can be interpreted as an attack towards the feminized version of Gregor, who stays at home and has a feminized diet. Aforementioned, the hunger artist explains that he fasted for so long because “[he] couldn’t find any food [he] liked.” He then clarifies that if he had found any, the spectators should believe him that he would have eaten “to [his] heart content” (“A Hunger Artist” 262). The description of the panther eating juxtaposes the hunger artist’s last confession. The narrator describes the panther by saying:

It wasn’t short of anything. Its food which it liked was brought along by its warders promptly and regularly, it seemed not even to miss freedom; the noble body furnished almost to bursting-point with all it required seemed even to have brought its own freedom with it; it appeared to be located somewhere in its jaws; and its love of life came so powerfully out of its throat that it was no easy matter for spectators to withstand it.

(“A Hunger Artist” 262-63).

The narrator describes the animal, which represents the symbol of masculinity with its diet and attitude, with heroic words such as noble and free. The panther gets his freedom because of the food located in its jaws. Therefore, the story suggests that the masculine diet of the panther is the gateway to power and freedom, even in a cage.

The hunger artist’s pitiful and miserable bones left in the cage juxtapose the panther’s perfect, free, and powerful form. This juxtaposition is also present in Letters to his Father, as Franz describes his young self as “a little skeleton” ashamed of his public appearance. At the same time, he explains that he was “proud of [his] father’s body” (Letters to his Father 25). Similarly, both Hermann Kafka and the panther devour the food they like. The panther’s regular enjoyment of food resembles that of Hermann Kafka. Kafka recalls that his father sat at the head of the dining table, chewed bones, dropped food around him, and had other rules on how a man should eat (26-7). These rules made Kafka suffer, similar to the hunger artist’s suffering in the cage. It is worth noting that the panther, similar to Hermann Kafka, has a masculine diet of meat rather than a feminine or childish diet of vegetables and dairy. The panther usurps the hunger artists, who by the end of the story amounts to no more than a pile of bones, as a metaphorical gesture by the author to highlight how the voracious masculinity of his father, which he admired but also feared.

There also exists a link between raw and cooked food and cultural norms. Claude Lévi-Strauss explains in his book, The Raw and the Cooked, that cooking and culture go hand in hand and that the freshness of the ingredients matters (65, 270). Lévi-Strauss notes, “the raw/cooked axis is characteristic of culture; the fresh/decayed one of nature, since cooking brings the cultural transformation of the raw, just as putrefaction is its natural transformation” (142). Gregor Samsa rejects cooked food. His diet after the metamorphosis is consistent with “half-rotten vegetables; bones left over [and ] cheese […] unfit for human consumption […]” (The Metamorphosis 109). What Gregor eats is not only decaying but also raw, natural, and uncooked, reinforcing that Gregor is losing his humanity. Gregor, and therefore Kafka, rejects culture and its norms with this diet and turns toward more feminized socialization with food.

Kafka uses his personal complex relationship with food and nourishment as a motif in his short prose, The Metamorphosis and “A Hunger Artist,” and Letters to his Father to protest against the gender hegemony present of his socio-historical moment. He isolates the protagonists in his stories because of their eating habits and diets and is isolated from the dining table by his father. The author emasculates the characters through their peculiar eating habits and their embrace of feminized eating behavior; they fast, refuse to eat meat—the ideal masculine food—and consume vegetables and dairy products. Franz Kafka is not  a feminist author, per se. However, by using feminine acts and strategies, he condemns the traditional masculinity existing in twentieth-century Prague.

Works Cited

Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist–Vegetarian Critical Theory. New York: Continuum, 1990.

Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a Modern Disease. Harvard UP, 1988.

Ellmann, Maud. The Hunger Artists: Starving, Writing, and Imprisonment. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Kafka, Franz. “A Hunger Artist.” The Metamorphosis and Other Stories. Translated by Micheal Hofmann, Penguins Classics, 2008, pp. 252–263.

—. “The Metamorphosis.” The Metamorphosis and Other Stories. Translated by Micheal Hofmann, Penguins Classics, 2008, pp. 85–146.

—. Letters to his Father. Translated by Hanna and Richard Stokes, Alma Classics, 2017.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Raw and the Cooked. 1964. Translated by John Weightman and Doreen Weightman. London: Johnathan Cape, 1970. 

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Émile. 1762. Translated by Barbara Foxley. Dent, 1974.

About the Author: Solmaz Salehi is a U3 double major in English Literature and History and this is her first time editing for The Channel. She only enjoys reading pretentious modernist and postmodernist works and loves debating when modernism ends and pomo begins. Some of her favourite writers are James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Michael Ondaatje, Anne Sexton, and Hanya Yanagihara.