The Good Soldier Švejk

by Jaroslav Hašek

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 440

Hasek's themes can probably be understood best through their historical context: the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Svejk (the name is pronounced "shvike," rhyming with like) is a Czech soldier in the Austrian army during World War I. At that time, what is now the Czech Republic was part of Austria-Hungary. From the early 1800s on, nationalism had been a major factor in European thought, and each ethnic group had the goal of independence, or forming its own nation state. The Czechs had been ruled for centuries by German-speaking Austrians. The situation was complicated by the fact that the ethnic Czech gentry and middle class spoke German, until the wave of nationalism resulted in a revival of the Czech language in the late nineteenth century. For centuries prior to this, Czech had been spoken primarily by the rural and working-class population.

Hasek's focus in The Good Soldier Svejk is on the absurdity of war and the ridiculous mindset of the Austrian military command. I've gone into the issue of Czech nationalism in detail not because it's the main point of the story, but because it is basically an adjunct of the more general theme of the bizarre nature of war and, in addition, of class conflict. Svejk is a kind of country bumpkin who, as a "good soldier," is pushed around and placed repeatedly in absurd situations.

It is not just specifically the military command but also the religious authorities who are satirized in the story. In one episode, the company chaplain sends Svejk on a mission, a kind of wild goose chase, to purchase a huge quantity of a special kind of wine from a place miles away from camp. The upshot is that Svejk gets thrown in jail for his efforts, but the point is that the chaplain and the officers in general are fools.

Svejk acts as the dutiful soldier no matter what happens and what situations he's placed in. Throughout the story, it's not certain to what degree Svejk really wants to be the good soldier or if (more probably) he is just pretending to be obedient and is actually smarter than the people in command. Svejk has much in common with a folk character called Honza (Czech for Johnny), a similarly simple rural type who goes out into the world and somehow becomes a success against the odds.

In The Good Soldier Svejk, the author brings together themes of ethnic and class conflict with an antiwar and anti-authority message. The story is infused with a type of characteristic central European humor and written in a deadpan, ironic tone that makes its message even stronger.

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