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Free «Upside Down Christ: “The Lottery,”  “A Hunger Artist,” and the Arbitrary Sacrifice» Essay Sample

Both “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson and “A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka present the relationship between a community and a single social outlier who helps define them, both presenting a unique take on the Christ figure in starkly different ways. In “The Lottery,” the social outlier is Tessie Hutchinson, who spends most of the story as an accepted member of the society, defined by being a normal, indistinguishable member of society. She is an outlier only in that she is late for the lottery drawing. To ensure a great harvest, the town holds a lottery in which one person is chosen as a sacrifice. Once she is chosen to be sacrificed, she resists and claims the system is unfair. Her position as Christ figure is thrust upon her by chance, and only then she hopelessly resists the system . She is an embodiment of Christ figure. Her sacrifice has a defining function for the society, helping establish an identity and bring comfort. However, she is different from Christ. She does not choose her fate, and the lottery does not have meaning beyond the chance of the draw, calling into question the arbitrariness and dehumanization of such ceremonies. In contrast, “A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka is a story of a man who starves himself for the amusement of others, thus making his own suffering the object of others’ interest. He is an outlier of his own choosing, but as he pushes the boundaries of human ability, the public loses interest; thus, his social function is diminished by the capriciousness of the public. He moves to a circus where he becomes even less of a subject and more of an object, an oddity for circus goers to pass by and no longer relevant to the public. He declines to invisibility among the straw in his cage, and as he is dying, he tells the overseer at the circus that he is an artist only because he cannot be otherwise. He says the only reason he has starved himself is “because I couldn’t find the food I liked” (Kafka 90). In this way, food represents the hunger artist’s relationship with the rest of society. His inability to engage in the most human action, eating food, separates him from society, and he is made a Christ figure, not by his superior abilities that show the peak of human potential, but by his basic difference that separates him as a dehumanized object. The hunger artist’s ability to give to his community through his own sacrifice is subject to arbitrary public whim. Food functions as a symbol in both stories of the society; Tessie is sacrificed to assure a good harvest, thus assuring the basic human need would be fulfilled, and the hunger artist sacrifices himself because he is unable, as a function of his being, to integrate with normal humans.In both “The Lottery” and “A Hunger Artist,” the Christ figure’s sacrifice leads to society’s gain, but in both cases the gain is superficial and arbitrary; while Tess in “The Lottery” is an accepted member of society and her place as Christ figure is only the result of chance, the hunger artist is unable to resist the thing which makes him exceptional, and his sacrifice is only for the sake of the fleeting whim of the public that dehumanized him in the first place.

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            “The Lottery” starts with a description of the summer day on which the lottery ceremony is to take place and an indication that the lottery is a common practice throughout this world. This focus on the summer day also ties the lottery to the cycle of seasons; thus, the sacrifice is as natural as flowers blossoming and as necessary to the town’s sense of normalcy. Likewise, the description of the time the ceremony would take place indicates the normalcy of the practice: “it could begin at ten o'clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner” (Jackson par. 1). There is no hint in this description that the lottery involves something as significant as the loss of life. The ultimate victim, chosen by chance, has no value as a human anymore and only value as a ceremony, as a marker of the town’s stability and sense of self. In the absence of indication of the seriousness of the ceremony and in the casual tone of the narrator, children gathering stones has no sense of horror. It is only a mundane activity children might do on their summer vacation: “Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones” (Jackson par. 2). The presence of children throughout the text makes the horror of the final stoning more acute. The murder has been so stripped of seriousness by its seasonal certainty that children treat it as no more than a game. The later revelation that even children are libel to be chosen by chance to die for the stability of the town is no less horrific.

            Mr. Summers, who occupies more of the narrator’s attention than Tessie Hutchinson, could be viewed as a sort of fascist dictator for the town in light of the nature of the ceremony which strips one citizen of humanity arbitrarily; however, the casualness and friendliness of the way in which he enacts the ceremony shows both the normalcy of such dehumanization and implicates the rest of the townspeople in allowing such an unassuming man to enact such atrocities. The narrator introduces Mr. Summers by saying, “The lottery was conducted--as were the square dances, the teen club, the Halloween program--by Mr. Summers, who had time and energy to devote to civic activities” (par. 3). The sacrifice of a citizen has no more special place than a square dance, and Mr. Summers has his place as leader of the ceremony based only in his willingness and availability. Likewise, the description of the change from chips of wood to slips of paper is based on pragmatic considerations; Mr. Summers devotes more thought to the moral implications of the ceremony.

            The introduction of Tessie demonstrates the normalcy of the eventual Christ figure and mirrors the casual attitude of the rest of the town’s people. The narrator says, “Mrs. Hutchinson came hurriedly along the path to the square, her sweater thrown over her shoulders, and slid into place in the back of the crowd. ‘Clean forgot what day it was’” (par. 8). As Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren say in their analysis, “Good-natured Tessie actually desires to come to the lottery, going so far as to run to it” (qtd in Bloom 29). Also, the way her sweater is “thrown over her shoulder” and the way she claims the ceremony has earlier slipped her mind both indicate that the day in which she may – and eventually does – die occupies no more important place in her mind than her dish washing, the excuse she eventually gives for her tardiness. Her tardiness and her supposed forgetting may be a result of her fear of the eventual lottery outcome, but any indication of this is subtle. For example, when the first lottery is conducted to determine the family from which the sacrifice would come, Tessie reacts to the Hutchinsons being chosen quite differently from her husband: “Bill Hutchinson was standing quiet, staring down at the paper in his hand. Suddenly, Tessie Hutchinson shouted to Mr. Summers, ‘You didn't give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn't fair!’” (par. 35). Bill presents the stoicism likely expected of townspeople while Tessie attempts to use the system itself to save her family. However, Bill quickly brings her back into line with what is expected of a wife by saying, “Shut up, Tessie” (par. 37). A husband’s control over his wife is one of many forms of casual horror for the sake of social control critiqued by the final murder. However, the narrator spends little time addressing this, and the ceremony continues as normal. At the end of the story, Tessie helplessly resists; as the narrator says, she “held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her,” and she continues her failed argument, “It isn’t fair” (par. 65). As Darryl Hattenhauer says in Shirley Jackson’s American Gothic, “Tess sees nothing wrong with the lottery until she is about to die, and then she complains only about the process of selection” (45). Also, as Jay Yarmove points out in his article “Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery,’” “We see she is not the good-humored, whimsical maiden whom we first saw eagerly entering the lottery. Her protests of the unfairness of the process – a thought that has only now occurred to her ... [are] the peevish last complaint of a hypocrite who has been hoisted by her own petard” (qtd in Bloom 42). However, despite her argument – an argument she fails to lodge before becoming the victim of it – the town moves in without hesitation.

            In this way, both Tessie and the hunger artist function as Christ figures without will, but for Tessie it is in a society stripped of will. She is unwilling to sacrifice herself, though in her weak resistance to the inhumane system she gives an implicit approval. The town seems to function not driven by its own will but by the force of history which challenges their ability to imagine a society and a cycle of time without the ceremony of the lottery. The choosing is likewise done without will, leaving the murder of an innocent woman up to chance. While a Christ figure sacrifices himself or herself for the sake of the society, this is done willfully and for the betterment of the society, ideally showing people how to willfully make their lives better. While Tessie’s sacrifice maintains the stability and the normalcy of the society – figuratively ensuring a harvest which stands in for that which defines them as people – there is very little indication that the town is made better by this sacrifice otherwise; indeed, the immoral system likely persists. The hunger artist, likewise, reveals that his performances have not been based on his will, and the society receives only brief delight based on their whim, not the more permanent change definitive of the Christ figure.

            “A Hunger Artist” starts with a distant third person perspective establishing early that the main character will be treated as an object by other characters and even the narrator. The story begins “During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished” (Kafka 80). The temporal distance indicates that the narrator is not an omniscient figure but perhaps a nostalgic citizen, thus implicating the narrator as one of the ones who distance and dehumanize the hunger artist. This is supported by the later sentence “We live in a different world now” (Kafka 80). Unlike the town in “The Lottery” which likely remains the same after Tessie’s death, this society has moved past such practices as objectifying the hunger artist, but only because of changing trends, not because the hunger artist has sacrificed himself. The narrator remembers the glory days of the art of starvation and does not train focus on the character until several sentences later. Then he says, “At one time the whole town took a lively interest in the hunger artist ... everybody wanted to see him” (Kafka 80). Even with the introduction of the main character, the narrator’s focus stays on the reaction of others. Furthermore, the narrator implies the hunger artist is only truly appreciated by the children who see him as a “special treat,” but “for their elders he was often just a joke that happened to be a fashion” (80). Even the children who seem to care about him more “hold each other’s hands for greater security,” as the narrator says (80). This implies the excitement they receive from him may be more than just a trendy joke, but still he frightens them. They cannot fully commit to the artist because of the vulnerability he elicits, so they must thrill themselves by witnessing him but, at the same time, grasping one another to remain safe. The only contact he has with others is thrusting his arm out of the cage to allow others a sense of awe at his thinness.

 
 
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By the end of the first paragraph, the narrator gives some insight into the artist’s inner-workings, showing the type of alienation commonly depicted in Kafka’s work. Once the onlookers have witnessed how grotesque his arm is, he “withdraw[s] deep into himself, paying no attention to anyone or anything...but merely staring into vacancy with half-shut eyes” (81). This shows that while the audience is disinterested in his humanity, he is disinterested in the audience as well and turns his attention inward. An uncertainty throughout the text is the hunger artist’s motivation for starving himself. There is implication that he is seeking glory by challenging human physical capacity, and this introspection could be indication of disciplined concentration, the way a great athlete may appreciate the accolades of accomplishment but concentrates while performing his or her great athletic feat in such a way as to be cut off. However, in light of the final revelation, that the hunger artist’s starvation is a result of his inability to find food he likes, the introspection of this moment implies a separation and disinterest in what is happening outside of his cage. As Sander L. Gilman says in his study Franz Kafka, the writer “evokes a ritual of starvation not through the agency of the artist but because of a programmed capacity of the artist’s body over which he has no control.

The way in which the hunger artist is dehumanized is also demonstrated in the lack of trust audiences have for his actual skill. They suspect he is only faking and sneaking food in secret. For example, the townspeople choose a “permanent watcher” whose “task [is] to watch the hunger artist day and night ... in case he should have some secret recourse to nourishment” (Kafka 81). This has contradictory implications: on the one hand, even the hunger artist’s attempt to gain respect in society fails; even the one thing that successfully gains him the attention and potential respect of others is only met with derisiveness among audiences who, as the narrator has already established, treat the hunger artist as only a “joke.” However, the suspicion also indicates that the audience may be willing to accept him as human. If his inhuman ability to starve is only an act, if he is secretly engorging himself on normal food, he may be ultimately capable of blending into the faceless crowd. However, this is a weak gesture since banality is no reward either. This is the contradictory nature of the Christ figure: to sacrifice for humanity is to stand outside of humanity; to be accepted by humanity is to lose the potential for a greater significance. This contrasts with the way in which Tess in “The Lottery” and shows how she inverts the Christ figure model: she is simultaneously part of society and a savior, but in the moment of her sacrifice she is both ejected and elevated to a greater status.

The brief moments in which the hunger artist, like Tess throughout her story, is welcomed into the society demonstrate his disease with normalcy and the shallowness of the public’s acceptance. When the hunger artist finishes his allotted time fasting, he is welcomed back into normalcy, and the sign of this acceptance is a meal. The allotted time is usually forty days “as fixed by his impressario,” as the narrator says, not because beyond that would be cruel but because it keeps the audience from getting bored: “Experience had proved that for about forty days the interest of the public could be stimulated by a steadily increasing pressure of advertising, but after that the town began to lose interest, sympathetic support began notably to fall off” (83). Because the alienation is a function of his being and of his body, he cannot actively leave the cage and must be carried out. However, the narrator implies that he would not want to leave the cage because it limits his ability to achieve greater glory. He communicates this with a series of rhetorical questions: “Why stop now when he was in his best fasting form?” and so on (83). Presumably, this is not the hunger artist’s perspective since throughout the story the narrator has not gained insight into the hunger artist’s actual thoughts but speculations about his thoughts that any audience member can glean from observing him. When he is fed, it seems like force feeding; the hunger artist is most comfortable starving himself because alienation is an essential part of his being. This is the inverse of the contradictory motivation of the audience: while their suspicion shows a distancing of the hunger artist but also a desire to bring him into nameless normalcy, the hunger artist’s discomfort with food shows his alienation is both a torture and a comfort.

As the story progresses, the hunger artist wishes to push his starvation further, the audience loses interest, and he declines into death. As Nathan Cervo says in his analysis for The Explicator, “due to lack of popular interest, he is relegated to a side cage, where he languishes on straw, almost indistinguishable from it... After a career that featured listlessness, abulia, and obsession, during which he starves himself rigorously and apparently gratuitously (therefore ‘artistically’), the hunger artist's appeal begins to wane. In an effort to regain popularity, he starves himself to death” (Cervo par. 1, 3). His eventual exile into a circus cage where circus goers pass him on the way to see other animals demonstrates the inevitable self-destructive path of those who are social outliers and find both pain and comfort in their alienation. His passivity and “abulia,” or lack of will, allows him to slip into non-existence barely even noticed. This shows the hunger artist as an inverted Christ figure but in a different way from Tess. The hunger artist, like Christ figures more generally, is an exceptional person who sacrifices himself for the sake of a community, and the community likewise changes after his sacrifice; however, this change is arbitrary, not a result of the sacrifice, and the hunger artist is soon forgotten. Instead, Cervo identifies the panther with which the hunger artist is replaced as the actual Christ figure of the text. Cervo says, “In Kafka's parable, it is Jesus who signifies the divine intoxication, the vital ‘freedom,’ bestowed by the Christian mysteries: Christianity surcharges its undaunted believers with the authentic gusto that is the existentially kept promise of faith, hope, and charity,” and in this way, “the free and joyful presence of a panther is necessary to Kafka's fulfilled meaning” (par. 4, 6). The panther, as a stark counterpoint to the hunger artist, represents the exile full of vitality who embraces his role as the inhuman object and creates his own space within society’s confinement. The panther may not save the community, but it is able to achieve that which the hunger artist is not: it is able to gain the public’s interest and overcome the contradiction of alienation and social acceptance.

The way in which both Tess and the hunger artist fall short of the Christ figure model implicate the societies in which such needless sacrifices are possible. Tess shows lack of will in her weak resistance to the town’s barbarous tradition. The hunger artist shows lack of will in that what is perceived as talent is only a freakish compulsion he would eliminate if able. The townspeople in both cases, driven by only arbitrariness, dehumanize and drive toward death the Christ figure for their own gain. In one case, the sacrifice is for the sake of an ultimately meaningless ceremony, and in the other case, the sacrifice is only for the sake of public’s capricious desire for the grotesque. These two Christ figures fail to truly save the society, and in this way, the authors show that such atrocious social conditions remain possible.

   

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