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There are many similar and contrasting elements between Franz Kafka’s The Country Doctor and The Hunger Artist. The Country Doctor is a short story about an old doctor’s struggle to save a dying boys life. He must make many difficult choices as well as deal with the fact that most in the villagers have lost sight of the fact that doctors are healers, yet cannot always save the lives. The doctor is first set with the task of finding another horse to borrow as his had died the day before.
After finding two steeds out of his pigsty, the groom sends the carriage along the way before the doctor can save his servant from him [the groom].
After getting to the ill boys house, the doctor, upon first glance believes the boy to be fine but upon further examination finds a wound festering with worms. The doctor understands that the boy is beyond saving, however it is demanded of him that he either save the boy or die.
After he is left alone with the boy he comforts him and helps him to pass on then sneaks out the window but the horses move too slowly. It is to be assumed that the doctor dies shortly after. The Hunger Artist tells the story of a man who fasts for days on end for the enjoyment of onlookers. Eventually his craft losses its appeal and the man is forced to join a circus, as he is not skilled in any other craft.
He is all but forgotten as he fasts, eventually starving to death. With his lasts words he explains why he fasted and of his own disbelief in himself.
One of the most obvious similarities between the two stories is that both main characters are unappreciated. The doctor is unappreciated by the fact that no one will lend him their horse so that he may tend to an emergency patient. He is the only doctor in the town and the best bet for the boy’s survival however no one seems to care enough for the doctor to help out. The artist is also unappreciated later in life. It starts out with a dwindling of spectators and eventually the only patrons he has are those on their way to the animals that have to pass by him. Eventually not even the attendant pays any attention to the artist. The artist himself even stops counting how many days he has been fasting, seeming to forget about himself as well.
The doctor and artist in these stories are also misunderstood. In The Country Doctor, the village believes that the doctor must save everyone, even when they are on death’s doorstep. “That’s how people are in my region. Always demanding the impossible from the doctor…But the doctor is supposed to achieve everything with his delicate surgeon’s hand.” (The Country Doctor). The villagers demand that the doctor heal the boy or they will kill him. They are oblivious to that fact that it is to late for the boy. They simply think that because the doctor is a doctor, he has the ability to heal the boy. The artist is misunderstood in a more subtly way. No one but the artist himself understands his desire for fasting. He always wants to go beyond the forty-day limit and is upset that people would think he was secretly eating during his fasting. At the end of the forty days there was always a triumphant celebration for the end of the fasting, however the artist never was a willing participant. “Why stop right now after forty days? He could have kept going for even longer, for an unlimited length of time.
Why stop right now, when he was in his best form, indeed, not yet even in his best fasting form? Why did people want to rob him of the fame of fasting longer, not just so that he could become the greatest hunger artist of all time, which he probably was already, but also so that he could surpass himself in some unimaginable way, for he felt there were no limits to his capacity for fasting. Why did this crowd, which pretended to admire him so much, have so little patience with him?” (The Hungry Artist). The artist was also misunderstood in the difficulty of his craft. He found fasting to be extremely easy and often tried to explain that to the people but the never seemed to believe him. “It was the easiest thing in the world. About this he did not remain silent, but people did not believe him.” (The Hungry Artist).
Another similarity between the two stories is the message that one should always follow what they feel to be the right thing to do. The doctor follows his duty though he knows he should have tried to save Rose. This ultimately leads to him being unable to save the boy and running for his life, naked in the freezing cold with two horses that will not lead him home. It seems that if he had done what he felt was right and saved Rose he would not be in the situation that leads to he presumed death. The Hungry Artist also deals with this message. The most obvious example of this is that the artist fasts even when no one seems to care, thus following his heart. Even on his death bed, when telling the supervisor that if he had only found a food that he liked he would not have been a faster he seems content with his last breath that what he is doing is the right thing to do. “but in his failing eyes there was the firm, if no longer proud, conviction that he was continuing to fast.” (The Hungry Artist).
There are also many differences between the two stories. One of the main differences is how the main characters feel about their jobs. The doctor seems to dislike his job the longer he does it. The doctor is especially displeased at the late hours he must keep with his job. “Well, this should be the end of my visit, I had once more been called out needlessly, I was used to that, the whole district made my life a torment with my night bell.” (The Country Doctor). The doctor is old and tired of always having to be the one to get up at all hours of the night and help. On the other hand, the artist loves his job. He loves to fast and finds it to be the easiest thing in the world. He doesn’t mind staying up all night to show that he is not secretly eating.
Another more literal difference is the state of the sick people in the stories. In The Country Doctor the boy appears altogether healthy. The doctor even believes it to be a waste of time upon first seeing the boy as he is not feverish and seems to be perfectly fine, though is actually dying. “I lay my head on the young man’s chest, which trembles under my wet beard. That confirms what I know: the young man is healthy. “His circulation is a little off, saturated with coffee by his caring mother, but he’s healthy and best pushed out of bed with a shove.” (The Country Doctor). The artist however appears sick on his deathbed. He is visibly unwell, “producing photographs, which were also on sale, for in the pictures one could see the hunger artist on the fortieth day of his fast, in bed, almost dead from exhaustion.” (The Hungry Artist).
A third difference between the two stories is simply duty vs. satisfaction. The doctor completes his duty forgoing the satisfaction of saving his servant, Rose. Though he would have much preferred saving his servant, his duty was to try and save the boy. ” I am employed by the district and do my duty to the full, right to the point where it’s almost too much. Badly paid, but I’m generous and ready to help the poor.” (The Country Doctor). The doctor goes against his wants and performs his duty whereas the artist does the opposite. The artist goes against his duty of eating and providing his body with nutrients because he gives into the satisfaction he receives from not eating. He loves to fast and finds it very simple. “It was the easiest thing in the world.” (The Hungry Artist). The main difference here is the choices both characters are making between duty and satisfaction. The doctor is unhappy with choosing to do his duty while the artist is very happy in his choice of satisfaction against his duty to his own body.
Both of these stories seem very different upon first glance, the most obvious difference being the plot in general. However with further inspection one can find many similarities as well. Both of the main characters are underappreciated in their line of work as well as misunderstood by their peers. In conclusion though containing many differences and similarities there is one main message between The Country Doctor and The Hunger Artist and that is that one should always follow their heart and do what they feel is right.
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