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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 396

The Joke is Kundera's first novel and features four primary characters: Ludvik Jahn (the primary protagonist), Jaroslav, Helena, and Kostka. The novel does not contain a standard narrative and is best understood with respect to the plot lines concerning these four characters.

The majority of the book is rooted in...

(The entire section contains 1515 words.)

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The Joke is Kundera's first novel and features four primary characters: Ludvik Jahn (the primary protagonist), Jaroslav, Helena, and Kostka. The novel does not contain a standard narrative and is best understood with respect to the plot lines concerning these four characters.

The majority of the book is rooted in Ludvik's two hapless "jokes." The first is in a postcard to his friend Marketa. Marketa is at a youth camp for young communists and, somewhat annoyed by the earnest tone in her letters, Ludvik, then a young student, sends her a postcard that says "Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!" Even though Ludvik is a member of the Communist Party, the Stalinist powers that be do not take kindly to his joke. His own friend reports him and, after being expelled from the university, he is compelled to penal servitude in mines. After all this—which takes place in the 1950s—Ludvik attempts to get his revenge by playing another "joke," this time on his erstwhile friend, Pavel. He does so by planning an affair with Pavel's wife, Helena. Unfortunately this joke, too, backfires since Pavel is only to happy to have someone who will take Helena off his hands.

The other characters also have their own "jokes" that shape the plot.

Kostka, who serves as a foil to Ludvik, separates himself from the Communist Party because of his Christian faith. Kostka thinks that it is possible to reconcile Christian faith with Communism; however, in thinking this he strays very far indeed from the party line.

Jaroslav cares deeply about Moravian folk culture and is very troubled by the Party's appropriation of it. His own wedding is described as a "showcase of traditional rituals and customs." Jaroslav wishes to revive a folk tradition called the Ride of the Kings; when he was young, he played the king. He learns, later, that his son has been chosen to be the king in the ritual, and this pleases him immensely. The joke is revealed when we learn that the king in the ceremony is not, in fact, his son. Neither his son nor his wife share his passion for folk culture, and they conspired so that Jaroslav's son could be away at a motorcycle race instead of at the outmoded ritual that his father cares about so passionately.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1119

Set in Communist Czechoslovakia, The Joke relates the serious consequences of a frivolous message that a university student sends his girlfriend by postcard: “Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky! Ludvik.” The Joke is divided into seven parts, with each part narrated in the first person by one of the main characters except for part 7, which is narrated alternately by three characters.

Parts 1 and 2, both brief and set in 1965, show Ludvik Jahn and Helena preparing for their rendezvous in Ludvik’s unnamed Moravian hometown. The rendezvous is the result of an elaborate plot whereby Ludvik plans to take revenge on his enemy Pavel Zemanek by seducing Helena, Zemanek’s wife. Part 3, narrated by Ludvik, shows his motives for seeking revenge, describing the highly politicized school years after the February, 1948, Communist revolution and recounting the story of the notorious postcard. Although a Communist student leader himself, Ludvik sends the joking message to Marketa, his naive girlfriend, when they are separated during the summer of 1949—he with an agricultural brigade, she at an ideological training session. Mocking what Marketa is being taught, Ludvik means simply to shock her as a joke, but the effect is far greater than he intended. The message is intercepted by the Communists, who, led by Zemanek (supposedly a friend), oust Ludvik from the Party and from the university. The Party’s wrath, however, is still not sated. Soon Ludvik is drafted into the military and assigned to a group with black insignia (that is, a penal unit).

Ludvik does his national service at Ostrava, where a typical day consists of work in the coal mines followed by indoctrination, punitive tasks, and bedtime. Provided they behave, the soldier-prisoners are allowed out of the guarded, fenced-in camp one day each month. Usually they go on a wild spree together, but one time when Ludvik is by himself, he meets the shy Lucie Sebetka, a factory worker. They fall in love, and she begins appearing at the camp fence daily with flowers for him. Their relationship provides the emotional support that Ludvik and apparently also Lucie deeply need, but Lucie refuses to have sex with him, even after Ludvik goes to considerable trouble and takes serious risks to arrange their trysts. Finally Ludvik resorts to force, which Lucie resists ferociously and successfully. In frustration, Ludvik screams at her to get out, but Lucie leaves town entirely. Then, realizing what he has lost, Ludvik goes AWOL to find her, gets caught, and has ten months of jail added to his time. When his military service ends, lest more hard time be added, he volunteers for three more years in the mines as a civilian worker.

Part 4, narrated by Jaroslav, Ludvik’s hometown friend, is an interlude from the main action, replete with discussions of Moravian folk music and folk celebrations. This part traces Jaroslav’s relationships with Ludvik, his wife Vlasta, and his son Vladimir. All these relationships have been deteriorating, paralleling the Communist government’s once-enthusiastic but now-declining support of Moravian folklore, as epitomized in the upcoming event, the annual Ride of the Kings, which this year (1965) Jaroslav has had to organize almost single-handedly in the face of uncooperative authorities.

Part 5, narrated by Ludvik, returns to the main action with a vengeance. Helena meets Ludvik in his hometown, and Ludvik proceeds with his revenge plot. He recounts in detail how he plies her with drink and seduces her in a monumental sex scene. Yet his satisfaction is short-lived. As soon as the seduction ends, Helena, now drunkenly maudlin, tells him that she and Zemanek have been estranged for years and continue to live together only for the sake of their daughter. Thus Ludvik’s elaborate revenge is meaningless: He has succeeded only in becoming romantically entangled with Helena, whom he decides that he detests.

If Ludvik has won Helena, he has forever lost the loving Lucie. This fact is driven home in part 6, which, narrated by Ludvik’s Christian friend Kostka, again recounts past events, particularly Lucie’s flight from Ostrava. She fled all the way to western Bohemia, where Kostka, himself expelled form a university teaching post for his Christian beliefs, was working on a collective farm. There, living in the woods like a fairy, stealing the farmers’ milk and eating food set out by children, Lucie becomes a subject of local folklore. Finally captured by kindly authorities, she is put to work on the collective farm and rehabilitated by Kostka. Yet her life, too, is blighted: She eventually marries a man who is unfaithful and beats her. They settle in Ludvik’s hometown, where Lucie works in a barbershop, and Ludvik in 1965 at first fails to recognize her when she shaves him.

The novel comes to a climax in part 7, set on the day of the 1965 Ride of the Kings. Zemanek appears at the festival with his attractive young girlfriend, Miss Broz. After Helena privately tells him how things stand between her and Ludvik and offers a divorce, Zemanek—obviously pleased to get rid of her so easily—is smug and congratulatory toward Ludvik, whom he hails as an old friend. In return, Ludvik can only suffer his unvented frustration. Time and change have cheated him of his hatred, which has dissipated, and meanwhile Zemanek has become a liberal critic of the regime, a person who shares Ludvik’s own views. Ludvik’s only recourse is to be honest with Helena and tell her that he does not want to see her again. In shock, Helena tries to kill herself by swallowing what she thinks is a bottle of analgesics, but they are actually laxatives. She is thoroughly purged of any romantic feelings toward Ludvik.

The sorrowful Ludvik wanders down by the river, where he comes across the equally sorrowful Jaroslav lying in the grass. Earlier in the day, Jaroslav was duped by his wife and son into thinking that the son was playing the role of the disguised king in the Ride of the Kings, when actually young Vladimir had left for the motorcycle races. In despair, Jaroslav broke all the kitchen china and furniture into a heap in front of his wife. Now he is on his way with his violin to perform in the traditional cimbalom band. Ludvik, a clarinetist, joins him, and before a tavern crowd they play music together as in the old days. Playing the music lifts Ludvik emotionally, but it brings the realization that he and his friends have led devastated lives. Then even the music ends when Jaroslav has a heart attack during the performance. He will recover, but he will always be a diminished, if not a devastated, man.

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