Issues of power and identity are recurring themes in most of Milan Kundera's writings. Having been expelled by a communist regime from his homeland, Czechoslovakia, after his novel The Joke was published, Kundera often writes about these issues within a political framework. Just as often, Kundera also plays out these themes while exploring the personal and sexual relationships between his main characters. A good example of this occurs in his short story ‘‘The Hitchhiking Game.’’ The story, much like the road down which the characters travel, twists and turns around questions of authority, sexuality, and self, stopping not at conclusive answers, but rather stopping only out of sheer exhaustion and a need for sleep. It is the questions that are important, Kundera says over and over again in interviews and essays as he attempts to explain his work. In a New York Times interview with author Philip Roth, Kundera upholds his right as an author to pose these questions and leave them unanswered. He says that it is the purpose of the writer to teach "the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude.’’ In ‘‘The Hitchhiking Game’’ it is definitely the questions that push the story forward. It is also the questions that both bind and alienate the story's characters as they try on variations of themselves, and play out different roles.
So leave the need for answers at the gas station and climb on board for a wild ride. Take a back seat and observe in silence and with an open mind, as Kundera's hitchhiking couple game their way through equally absurd identity crises. When those questions start banking up on one another, remember that another one of Kundera's aims as stated in his book Testaments Betrayed is to teach "the reader to be curious about others and to try to comprehend truths that differ from his own.’’
Being curious about one another does not seem to be one of the aims of either the boy or the girl (no names are given to these characters) in this short story. Rather they each think they already know one another very well. The boy knows that the girl is insecure, but he forgives her. ‘‘Jealousy isn't a pleasant trait,’’ he thinks, ‘‘but if it isn't overdone (and if it's combined with modesty), apart from its inconvenience there's even something touching about it.’’ The girl, on the other hand, believes that her modesty is ‘‘ridiculous and oldfashioned.’’ She thinks the young man wants a woman who can give him more ‘‘.. .lightheartedness, shamelessness and dissoluteness.’’ Their knowledge of one another is limited, and neither foresees the transformations that lurk at the next crossroads.
As they become entrenched in their makebelieve roles in their invented road game, they discover hidden and somewhat contradictory aspects not only of one another, but also of their own personalities. According to Freudian theory, these hidden aspects are called repressions, or parts of the personality that have been formerly denied. In this story the repressions are related to both sexual and authoritarian drives. The girl, in the guise of anonymity as the hitchhiker, slips easily into a mirror image of her former self—a kind of shadow, as Carl Jung, another psychoanalyst and student of Freud, would say. In Jung's book Man and His Symbols he states,"Sometimes, though not often, an individual feels impelled to live out the worst side of his nature and to repress his better side.''
This leads to some of the first questions in Kundera's story: Is this role, this guise that the girl puts on, an enactment of her worst side? The boy definitely believes it is not her better side, but the girl is not so assured. No more than three paragraphs into the story, the girl is already questioning her identity. "Many times at work she had noticed that they laughed at her on account of it [her modesty] and deliberately provoked her.... She often longed to feel free and easy about her body, the way most of the women around her did.... She was too much at one with her body; that is why she always felt such anxiety about it.’’
Since she cannot do it for herself, the girl seeks a unity of body and soul through the boy. However the relationship with the boy also causes anxiety because, in her mind, women who are less anxious and more carefree with their bodies are also more attractive. So she is caught in her own trap—a trap that she has obviously been living in for some time. Her self-consciousness makes her react awkwardly. Her awkwardness makes her feel more selfconscious. Like...
(The entire section is 1891 words.)