The Hitchhiking Game

by Milan Kundera

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Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 182

Kundera’s story is gamelike in a fundamental way: Two players take turns until the game is over. Because the story is divided into twelve sections, each player has six turns. Each section identifies and focuses on its particular player. Like any good omniscient narrator, Kundera’s does not play favorites: The sections are equally divided between the male and female points of view. The reader gets to know the characters, both their past and present selves, in equal doses.

Because the story zigzags back and forth between the man and the woman, the reader experiences a strange kind of suspense as one role dissolves and another is shaped. The reader is also asked to identify alternately with first the male and then the female, a request that, perforce, requires of the reader a rapid and frequent modulation of roles. The more involved the reader becomes in the story, the closer he or she comes to being one of the players. Kundera seems to suggest that reading itself, then, is a game, a game in which all readers knowingly or unknowingly participate.

Historical Context

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History of the Czech Region
The Czech region has undergone many political upheavals throughout the 20th century. Before World War I, the area now known as the Czech Republic was a part of the AustroHungarian empire, ruled by the Hapsburg monarchy. In 1918, not long after the War ended, the Czech and Slovak regions declared independence, forming the Republic of Czechoslovakia. This democratic regime lasted until 1938, when Prague suffered occupation by Germany under Adolf Hitler. In 1945, Soviet forces invaded Prague, and, with the defeat of Hitler, a provisional government was established from 1945 to 1948. After the war, a popular Communist movement had arisen, and Czechoslovakia came under Communist rule as a result of both democratic elections and pressure from mass demonstrations by Communistled workers. Soon after, Czechoslovakia adopted a Sovietstyle government, due to pressure from Joseph Stalin in Russia. In this spirit, the 1950s were characterized by purges of politicians accused of bourgeois nationalism. The 1960s, however, enjoyed a period of reform, whereby an attempt was made to show ‘‘socialism with a human face.’’

Prague Spring
Key events of 1968, known as the ‘‘Prague Spring,’’ mark a major event in the history of Czechoslovakia. As a result of democratic reforms begun in the early 1960s, citizens expressed a desire for even more rapid reform. A public statement known as the ‘‘Two Thousand Words,’’ signed by many citizens, called for further measures toward democracy. This did not sit well with surrounding Communist nations, however, and, two months later, the Soviet Union and several allies invaded and occupied Prague.

The Czech Republic
Popular uprisings, in the form of prodemocracy demonstrations and strikes, eventually lead to the collapse of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia in 1989. The first free elections in 45 years were held in 1990, and in 1991 the last Soviet troupes withdrew from Czechoslovakia. In 1992, Czechoslovakia was dissolved as a nation, leading to the formation of the Czech Republic.

Socialist Realism
With a socialist government running Czechoslovakia, a Marxist literary and artistic standard referred to as ' 'socialist realism'' became the standard by which all Czech literature was judged by the statesponsored censors. ‘‘Socialist realism’’ is essentially an artistic aesthetic that supports a socialist cultural analysis and socialist ideals. Because of its propagandistic nature, ‘‘socialist realism’’ requires "realistic" representation (in art and literature) in keeping with the values of socialist society.

Socialist realism was the only officially sanctioned aesthetic in the U.S.S.R. from 1932 through the mid1980s. Thus, the practice of state-sponsored censorship in Czechoslovakia under socialist rule, and under Russian occupation, functioned to repress the work of many writers and artists attempting to break away from the dictates of socialist realism. The works of such great Czech writers as Kundera, Miroslav Holub, Vaclav Havel and even Franz Kafka (who died in the 1920s) were therefore banned from publication, sale or library circulation in their own country until the mid-1980s.

Czech Cinema
Kundera studied script-writing and filmmaking in Prague. Like that of Czech literature, the history of the Czech film industry is largely dictated by state-sponsored censorship. Nonetheless, influenced by the ‘‘Polish School’’ of filmmakers working in the 1950s to 1970s, Czech filmmakers developed a fresh, new cinematic style referred to as the ''Czech New Wave'' cinema, which briefly flourished during the period of reform from 1962 to 1968. Although widely praised and appreciated by international audiences, however, these filmmakers were considered "subversive" inside their own country, and many of them were suppressed. After the Soviet invasion of 1968, the films created by the Czech New Wave were banned, and many filmmakers sent into exile.

Dissident Czech Writers
Two prominent Czech writers, contemporaries of Kundera, lived through similar experiences of censorship and oppression in their own country. Miroslav Holub (1923-1998) was a celebrated poet who also maintained a profession as clinical pathologist and immunologist, publishing more than 150 research papers in his field. In the 1950s, Holub became associated with other writers who opposed the dictates of ‘‘socialist realism’’ in literary production. Consequently, from 1970 to 1980, Holub's work was banned from publication or circulation in his own country.

Another contemporary of Kundera, Vaclav Havel, experienced similar repression, due to his politics and writing. Havel, a poet and playwright, was politically active during the brief period of reform culminating in the Prague Spring of 1968. With the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia several months later, Havel's plays were banned and his passport was taken away from him. In subsequent years, he was arrested several times and spent four years in prison, from 1979 to 1983. Havel was, nevertheless, a leader in the protests against the Communist regime in Prague in 1989, and was subsequently elected President of the newly formed Czech Republic three times between 1989 and 1993.

Literary Style

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Narrative point-of-view
This story is told from a third person limited perspective. This means that the narrator is not a character in the story but is not necessarily omnipotent in its perspective. The pointofview of the story alternates between the internal thoughts and feelings of the young woman and those of the young man. This alternating perspective is central to the meaning of the story, because it is the discrepancy between the meaning and significance of the "game'' to the young woman and to the young man, which has such dire consequences for their relationship. This narrative technique heightens the effect of the story in that the reader is all the more aware of the extent to which the young woman is not aware of the negative affect of her behavior in terms of the young man's opinion of her until it is too late. This narrative perspective makes the ending of the story that much more sad because, while the reader is aware that the young man now hates his girlfriend, and is dreading the remaining days of their vacation, the young woman still has not realized the magnitude of his changed feelings for her. One can only imagine that she is going to spend the next 13 days attempting to win back his affection, unaware that his newfound hatred for her is irrevocable.

Setting
''The Hitchhiking Game'' is set in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, and the story was first published in 1963. During this time, Czechoslovakia, under Communist rule, first enjoyed a period of democratic reform, and then suffered invasion and occupation by Soviet troupes. This setting is important because a central theme of Kundera's stories is about the ways in which an oppressive society affects intimate interpersonal relationships. This context affects the young man's decision to take a different road from that which he had originally planned. Spontaneously choosing to take a turn away from the direction he had planned six months ahead of time represents to the young man a rebellion against ‘‘the omnipresent brain that did not cease knowing about him even for an instant.’’ In other words, the societal pressures of the workplace which seemed to leave him with no privacy and no sense of spontaneity or personal freedom. The ugly power play which emerges from the "game" between the young man and woman is thus an expression of the young man's sense of powerlessness in his societal circumstances.

Irony
The concept of the ''game,'' as emphasized by its use in the story's title, creates a strong sense of irony. While a "game" is something that is supposed to be fun, trivial and playful, this "game" turns out to be cruel, significant and devastating for the young couple. In many of Kundera's stories, games and humor often turn out to expose a dark, evil underbelly, with dire consequences for the lives of his characters. In this story, the "game'' ironically turns into something ugly as it exposes deep-seated attitudes which structure the relationship between the young man and the young woman.

Metaphor
The "road'' in this story functions as a metaphor for one's path in life in the atmosphere of a repressive society. For the young man, his "road" in life seems to be planned, controlled and watched down to the last detail, for "the main road of his life was drawn with implacable precision.’’ Kundera tells us, "He had become reconciled to all this, yet all the same from time to time the terrible thought of the straight road would overcome him—a road along which he was being pursued, where he was visible to everyone, and from which he could not turn aside." It is this metaphor of the road as applied to his life which leads the young man to spontaneously decide at a crossroads to turn in a direction other than what he had planned—for him, taking a different turn symbolizes an act of individual defiance against the controlled circumstances of life in a repressive Communist society: ‘‘Through an odd and brief conjunction of ideas the figurative road became identified with the real highway along which he was driving— and this led him suddenly to do a crazy thing.’’ While his decision to spontaneously change plans is motivated by the desire to veer from the ‘‘straight and narrow’’ road prescribed to him by society, it results in a decision to change the manner in which he treats his own girlfriend.

Compare and Contrast

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1960s: Under Communist rule since 1948, the Czechoslovakian government institutes a period of democratic reform in 1962, culminating in the Prague Spring of 1968. Several months later, however, Soviet troupes invade and occupy Czechoslovakia, instituting a severe crackdown on writers and politicians considered "dissident."

1990s: In 1989, Communist rule collapses throughout much of Eastern Europe, as characterized by the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Czechoslovakia becomes the Czech Republic. The first democratic elections were held in 1990, and the last Soviet troupes withdraw from the country in 1991.

1960s: The Cold War, characterizing the ideological antagonism and the arms race between the United States and the U.S.S.R. since the end of World War II, is in full swing.

1990s: The fall of Communism in many Eastern European countries in 1989, and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, signify the end of the Cold War, which had lasted more than 40 years.

1960s: The conditions under which Czech writers write is characterized by statesponsored censorship and the idealized "aesthetic'' of socialist realism in art and literature. The works of novelists and poets such as Kundera, Vaclav Havel and Miroslav Holub are censored and banned in their own country, and the writers themselves often imprisoned, fired from their jobs, prevented from leaving the country, or sent into exile.

1990s: With the collapse of Communist rule in 1989, the fate of many writers formerly considered "dissident'' changes drastically. Most notably, Vaclav Havel, writer and political leader who had spent four years in prison for his "dissident" activities, is elected leader of the newly formed Czech Republic three times between 1989 and 1993. Books by writers whose work had been banned for decades are finally made available in their native country.

1960s: Kundera is living in Czechoslovakia, where the publication of his work, is restricted by statesponsored censorship, and later banned from publication, sale or circulation in his own country. Eventually, in 1979, his citizenship is revoked. Nevertheless, his stories and novels are written in the Czech language, and set in Czechoslovakia

1990s: Kundera lives in France, where he became a naturalized citizen in 1981. His first novel set in France is published in 1990, and his subsequent novels were originally written in the French language.

Media Adaptations

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being was made into a movie released in 1988, and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche and Lena Olan.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being was recorded on audiocassette in 1988 by Books on Tape (Newport Beach, CA). It is read by Christopher Hurt.

Identity was recorded on audiocassette in 1998 by Books on Tape (Newport Beach, CA). This unabridged version of the novel is read by Barrett Whitener.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Morace, Robert A., An overview of' 'The Hitchhiking Game,’’ in Reference Guide to Short Fiction, 1st ed., edited by Noelle Watson, St. James Press, 1994.

Rosenblatt, Roger, A discussion of Laughable Loves, in The New Republic, September 6, 1975, pp. 29-30.

Roth, Philip, Introduction to Laughable Loves, a collection of short stories by Milan Kundera, New York: Penguin Books, 1974, p. xvi.

Further Reading
Kundera, Milan, The Art of the Novel, New York: Grove Press, 1986.
Kundera's nonfiction work exploring his theories of the development of the European novel.

, Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts, New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
Kundera's nonfiction essay critiquing the ways in which the modern novel has been perceived by many critics. Focuses particularly on his view that the humor of the Czech writer Franz Kafka has been overlooked.

Misurella, Fred, Understanding Milan Kundera: Public Events, Private Affairs, Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.
Explores the recurrent theme in Kundera's work in which political circumstances affect the power dynamics of personal relationships.

Pillai, C. Gopinathan, The Political Novels of Milan Kundera and O. V. Vijayan: A Comparative Study, New Delhi: Prestige, 1996.
Compares the political implications of Kundera's novels with those of the Indian writer Vijayan.

Podhoretz, Norman, The Bloody Crossroads: Where Literature and Politics Meet, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986. Treats a small selection of writers, such as Camus, Orwell and Henry Adams. Includes a chapter entitled, ‘‘An Open Letter to Milan Kundera—the terrible Question of Aleksadr Solzhenitsyn.’’

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