Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 636

The action of the novel takes place during one week, between May 4 and May 11, 1945, the period between the defeat of the occupying Nazis in this area of Czechoslovakia and the takeover by the Soviets. The title refers to the fact that in spite of all the brave sentiments mouthed by the townspeople, few of them really want to be involved in the fight against the Nazi troops, until the issue is no longer in doubt.

Illustration of PDF document

Download The Cowards Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The novel is narrated in the first person by Danny, a self-obsessed and self-conscious youth, who is often more worried about his unsuccessful courtship of Irena and his relationships with his peers in the jazz band than he is about the important events taking place around him. Danny is a member of the bourgeoisie and thus cannot really identify with the proletarians who are in favor of the approaching Russian troops. Nevertheless, he understands and fully exploits his privileged position. When he is arrested by the Germans during a demonstration early in the novel, he is saved from punishment, and possibly even execution, by the intervention of Dr. Sabata, a town official and a friend of Danny’s father. Danny then joins a partisan group and is issued a submachine gun, but immediately afterward, most of the group tamely turns over these guns when ordered to do so by the town authorities. The only holdout is Prema, their leader, who refuses to give up his gun and is jailed as a result.

The hopes and fears of the townspeople rise and fall at the confused news from the nearby front. The town organizes a militia, supposedly to keep order and to guard against an uprising of the local Communists. The militia marches around in the streets in small bands, but without guns. Danny joins this force too, but he feels silly while engaged in this pointless exercise. The militia engages in a number of fights with Communist insurgents, but since the town’s makeshift army remains unarmed, its efforts are futile. Eventually, Danny deserts.

The next development takes place when hundreds of prisoners of war, escaping from camps after German defeats, straggle into the town. Danny, who speaks English, becomes responsible for a group of English escapees and finds billets for them through his extensive contacts with bourgeois families. The next day, however, German troops on the retreat start moving through town, and Danny goes back to the militia, thinking that the time for real action has come at last. He finds another submachine gun and joins in the confused battle that soon erupts in and around the town between the advancing Russians and the retreating Germans. He loses his fear as he thinks of his love, Irena, and is caught up in the excitement of battle. Later, he meets Prema, his former revolutionary leader, who has escaped from jail. Together they set up a heavy machine-gun emplacement on the outskirts of town and destroy a German tank. Soon after, the battle ends, and Danny returns to the town, where he finds some townspeople taking a grisly revenge on a group of captured Germans. This sickens him. He seeks out Irena, who has been working for the Red Cross and discovers that her boyfriend, Zdenec, has not yet returned from the battle. Danny comforts her, all the while seeking to seduce her, but she resists his advances and he returns home in despair. The novel ends with his jazz band playing in the town square to celebrate the arrival of the Soviets and the end of the war. Irena is dancing with her boyfriend, who has returned, so Danny’s saxophone sobs out a melody that elegizes the end of his youth and signals the beginning of a new era. This is an era, however, that is fraught with new menace.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial