Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 693
Hasek's novel is a combination of satire, pure comedy, social criticism, nationalistic sentiment, and pacifism. The plot is basically a series of vignettes in which the absurdity of war and social conflict are examined while a seemingly bumbling simpleton navigates his way through the eastern front of World War I.
The central character, Josef Svejk, is outwardly the "good soldier" of the title, and there is no final answer to the riddle of his behavior. The story takes place during the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the Great War. The Empire was a melange of nationalities dominated by the German-speaking Austrians. For centuries the Czechs, of whom the author was one, had been a part of Austria; with the nationalism sweeping Europe from the beginning of the nineteenth century on, the Czechs and other non-German-speaking ethnic groups wished for independence, to have their own nation states. Svejk, though a Czech from Prague, is unrealistically patriotic in favor of the Austrian cause in the war. In spite of being placed in a hospital because he is believed insane, he manages to join the army, where he has a series of mishaps and is arrested at least four times in the course of the story. Svejk is made personal servant first to an army chaplain, then to a lieutenant.
In every situation he responds to commands in a robotically dutiful way, though he is constantly mistreated, pushed around, called a fool and a numskull, and given idiotic tasks to perform such as when the chaplain sends him on a wild goose chase to obtain a huge amount of a certain special type of wine that is made only at a place kilometers away from camp. Throughout the novel it's impossible to know for sure if Svejk is really as stupid and uncomprehendingly patriotic as he seems, or if his behavior is a ruse in order to make his superiors look like fools (which they are). After he becomes the aide to Lt. Lukas, when they are on a train Svejk either pulls the emergency brake himself or tricks the conductor into doing so. The passengers, including the military men, pile out of the stopped train, then pile on when it's made ready to move again, but the upshot of the episode is that Svejk is stranded, loses his papers, and is required to purchase a new train pass though he has no money. It ends up that he is required to walk to barracks, many kilometers away in the town of Ceske Budejove (in German known as Budweis, and famous for its beer). But instead of heading south as he is supposed to, he heads west and begins a rambling journey, meeting different people who advise him to do this, or that. There is no actual explanation for why Svejk has gone in the wrong direction in the first place. One would think, as stated, that it's part of a ruse that encompasses his behavior overall, except that there is never any clear indication this is true. He eventually is arrested again, presumably for desertion, though he is also suspected of espionage. At another point he is arrested because he is wearing a Russian soldier's uniform (the Russians are the enemy) and released again. The novel ends (it was left unfinished) before Svejk can actually see combat action at the front.
The novel is thus an episodic series of comic episodes in which, though Svejk is the one constantly unlucky and being mistreated, the result is that the people in charge look even less intelligent than he is. The Austrian military command, including the chaplain, are shown as hypocrites and fools, and the nature of war, through various happenings and anecdotes related, is shown as bizarre and ridiculous. The interactions of the characters are indicative of both class conflict and the differences among the various ethnic groups that populated Austria-Hungary. On the highest level the novel is a satire on human nature in general, and the seemingly compliant and absurd behavior of Svejk is a parody of human folly, but one in which Svejk is probably hoodwinking all the "normal" people around him.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1070
Josef vejk, by profession a dog trader, is discharged from his military service saddled with the classification of “feebleminded.” The shots in Sarajevo, however, which signal the beginning of World War I, bring vejk back into the army. A careless remark soon leads to his arrest, but he convinces the police of his feebleminded condition and is sent to a lunatic asylum. Medical authorities are so irritated by vejk’s cheerfulness that they classify him as a malingerer of weak intellect and send him back to the police. vejk’s habit of giving the most innocent and confusing replies to all bureaucratic inquiries causes the police to send him home again.
When the Austrian army suffers its first major losses, however, the war ministry decides that vejk should be conscripted into military service once more. vejk comes to the medical examination in a wheelchair, with crutches by his side to indicate the bad state of his rheumatism. The army doctor, who is in the habit of finding everybody fit for service, is incensed by vejk’s performance. The good soldier vejk’s first station becomes the military prison. Treatment in the infirmary of the military prison is aimed at intensifying each patient’s desire to serve his fatherland away from the infirmary.
The main diversion in the prison is the Mass celebrated by the chaplain, Otto Katz, a priest whose love for alcohol surpasses by far his dedication to priestly duties. Katz, impressed by vejk, requests that the soldier be assigned to him as an orderly. In this capacity, vejk becomes indispensable as an altar boy during Mass, as a helper at various drinking bouts, and as a stimulating partner during unorthodox religious debates.
vejk’s good fortune does not last long. Katz is as fond of gambling as he is of wine. During a poker game, he loses vejk to Lieutenant Luká, who is beloved by his subordinates but disliked by his superiors. vejk is now expected to handle many delicate situations in connection with Lieutenant Luká’s love for the opposite sex. Frequently, the lieutenant despairs over the embarrassing predicaments that develop each time vejk handles a project.
One day vejk procures a dog, which he gives to Lieutenant Luká. The animal actually belongs to Colonel Kraus, one of Luká’s superiors. When the lieutenant takes an evening stroll with the dog, he has a most unpleasant encounter with Colonel Kraus, who recognizes his missing pet. The colonel promptly arranges a transfer for the lieutenant and his orderly to a battalion destined for frontline duty.
On the train, vejk manages to insult a fellow passenger who turns out to be an inspector general. When he inadvertently releases the emergency brake and is unable to pay the requested fine, he is taken from the train, much to the delight of Lieutenant Luká, who has not yet recovered from the incident of the dog. The train moves on without vejk, who finds himself considered a mistreated war hero by the people at the railroad station. A collection is taken up to pay his fine, and he is entertained with free beer. Later, military police arrest vejk when they discover that he is without identification papers. A cross-examination, conducted at headquarters, frustrates the investigating officer, and he orders vejk to proceed on foot to the destination point he is supposed to reach by train.
vejk marches off in the wrong direction and is arrested as a suspected spy. An ambitious sergeant, interpreting vejk’s confusing way of answering questions as highly intelligent evasions, considers him a prize catch. vejk is transferred to higher authorities, but the captain in charge prefers to believe vejk’s implausible explanation to the more implausible report that the sergeant has prepared. vejk is returned to his regiment and to the surprised Lieutenant Luká. The lieutenant, determined that vejk should not cause him any further embarrassment, orders vejk transferred to the regimental dungeon for unauthorized absence from duty. After three days, however, Lieutenant Luká’s superior officer, who nourishes a grudge against him, sends vejk back to the lieutenant to resume his old position, and Lieutenant Luká is forced to accept the situation.
Before long, Lieutenant Luká discovers a lady whom he considers a good prospect for another amorous adventure. vejk is assigned to deliver a letter to the lady, but the letter reaches her husband instead. The delivery of the letter turns into a street fight, which in turn results in vejk’s arrest and a great deal of unfavorable publicity around the garrison.
Lieutenant Luká is now appointed company commander of a unit on its way to the Russian front; he also has strict orders to take vejk along as a company orderly. In his new duty post, vejk’s first assignment is that of telephone operator, a duty that gives him ample opportunity to confuse the preparations for the transfer to the front. His next contribution to the war effort occurs as the result of exercising his commonsense judgment: When a coding system based on the second volume of a novel is to be installed for the regiment, vejk distributes the first volume because he is of the opinion that everybody should start reading a book at the beginning.
The most disliked officer of the regiment is Lieutenant Dub, a former schoolteacher who considers it his duty to transplant barracks drill discipline to the front line. Several episodes with vejk convince Lieutenant Dub that he has enough material to proceed with a court-martial against vejk. During a short stay in a small village, however, vejk, having been ordered to look for Lieutenant Dub, discovers his superior drunk in a brothel. This discovery gives vejk an opportunity to ridicule the lieutenant in front of all the soldiers. vejk is also valuable in assisting the quartermaster to find billets and supplies.
vejk’s last assignment is an order from Lieutenant Luká to find the road to the next village. vejk, trusting his common sense, disregards the map and loses his way. When he approaches a pond, he finds a Russian prisoner of war taking a bath. The sight of vejk causes the Russian to flee stark naked. vejk cannot resist the temptation to try on the Russian’s uniform. At this moment soldiers arrive to recapture the escaped “enemy.” vejk is assigned to a gang of Russian prisoners repairing the railroad leading to the Russian front.