Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Ludvik Jahn

Ludvik Jahn, a student in Communist Czechoslovakia. Ludvik is a cheerful and fun-loving man who learns the hard way how to appraise people and political behavior. At the university in Prague, he develops a crush on a dour fellow student, Marketa, and to shock and amuse her, he sends her a postcard reading, “Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!” This joke is taken seriously; already suspected of individualistic tendencies, Ludvik is expelled from the university and Party and sent to an army penal battalion. Hard work in the mines and social isolation embitter him, and his thwarted love for an eccentric local girl, Lucie, stifles his romantic ideals. Years later, Ludvik encounters Helena, the wife of Pavel, the man responsible for his expulsion. A skilled womanizer, he arranges a tryst with her in his Moravian hometown, where she is reporting on the Ride of the Kings. Once there, he encounters Lucie, his old friend Kostka, and Pavel. In seducing Helena, he discovers the illusory and unsatisfying nature of vengeance deferred. Ludvik is a man of many faces and a calculating role-player. He often miscalculates and must accept unforeseen consequences. He maintains his sense of humor, but his alienation and lingering passion for Lucie prevent him from finding true peace. Ironically, it is in Moravian folk culture, on which he once based his communist vision, that he ultimately finds meaning and sanctuary.

Helena Zemanek

Helena Zemanek, Pavel’s wife, a radio feature reporter. Helena is an elegant redheaded woman who, though externally devoted to Pavel and their daughter Zdena, is bored with her emotional life and longs for passion. She falls for Ludvik at once, drawn by his sadness, and is excited by their relationship. Tinged with guilt, she questions her beliefs and...

(The entire section is 772 words.)

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Although The Joke centers on the story of Ludvik, the novel could be subtitled “Ludvik and His Friends.” In a highly complex novelistic structure, the stories of Ludvik’s friends weave in and out of his story, supplementing and complementing it. All of their stories, as Ludvik realizes at the end, tend to reinforce—sometimes comically, sometimes sadly—a sense of loss or “devastation.”

Ludvik’s life comes apart with the foolish joke and its horrendous consequences—ejection from the Party and the university; the wasted years in the military penal unit, prison itself, and the mines; and the difficulties of returning to civilian life in the Communist society that suspects him. The worst consequence is the effect of his experiences on Ludvik himself, on his character and on his personality. A dedicated and joking fellow, he becomes a stunted, shallow, and suspicious person, unable to maintain any solid beliefs or relationships. He provides a prime example of the division between body and soul that Milan Kundera maintains is the theme of the novel. In effect, he has lost his soul, reducing love to sex (with Lucie) and sex to revenge (with Helena). Hope appears, however, in the understanding of himself that he finally reaches.

Some of the other main characters could almost be considered symbolic of aspects of Ludvik. The angelic Lucie and the Christian Kostka represent the soul that Ludvik has lost—the possibilities for...

(The entire section is 420 words.)