Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 151
Milan Kundera's The Joke is about the consequences of making a joke in humorless times. The setting is Czechoslovakia in the years following the 1948 Communist revolution. At this time, Czechoslovakia was under (Stalinist) Communist rule. The protagonist, Ludvik Jahn, writes a postcard to a young woman named Marketa. Marketa is a friend of Ludvik's, although he wishes that they could be more than friends. The trouble begins for Ludvik when he sends a postcard poking fun at the Communist Party to Marketa, who is at an ideology camp for young people. Even though Ludvik is a member of the Party himself, this joke lands him in serious trouble with the authorities. Later in the book, Ludvik meets a woman named Helena Zemankova, who is the wife of a Communist Party member, Pavel Zemanek. The other major character is Kostka, a Christian who serves as somewhat of a foil to Ludvik's character.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772
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, 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 perceptions and acts purely on emotional impulse. After her tryst with Ludvik, she believes that they will begin a new life together; when he suddenly abandons her, she becomes desperate and suicidal but is saved by the false labeling of her assistant’s laxatives.
Kostka, Ludvik’s friend, a hospital virologist. Kostka is a faithful Christian who sees everything in terms of Christian morality. He is tall and thin, attractively unattractive, sensitive, and serious. Like Ludvik, he is expelled from the Party and university, events that he accepts passively as fated. Unhappily married, he meets, comforts, and seduces Lucie. He rationalizes his acts as Christian charity but entertains doubts about his own righteousness. Seeing Ludvik again after many years, Kostka is outwardly friendly and obliging but really pities Ludvik’s anger and finds his reappearance irksome. Kostka is a man of deceptions, an uneven mix of meditation and frenzy.
Lucie Sebetka, a resigned young woman from Western Bohemia. Gang-raped as a teenager, then married to a philanderer, Lucie flees to Ostrava, where she meets Ludvik at his penal camp. Her childlike simplicity and vulnerability captivate him. She becomes emotionally devoted to him but cannot accommodate him sexually, and when he pressures her, she flees to a Moravian town. There she befriends Kostka, whose tenderness and concern she finds healing, and for a time they are lovers. She ends up a silent and solitary woman, working in a barbershop.
Pavel Zemanek, the Party chairman of natural sciences, later a university lecturer in Marxism. Pavel is an outspoken Communist Party ideologue. He is attractive and well-liked, with a cocksure complacency, and craves attention and applause. He uses Ludvik’s expulsion hearing as a platform for high-blown Party rhetoric and metaphor. Later, he is a negligent and unfaithful husband to Helena, though their daughter Zdena exalts him. When he encounters Ludvik at the Ride of the Kings, he has forgotten their past conflicts, and his diffidence renders pointless any vengeance Ludvik may hope to exact.
Jaroslav, Ludvik’s hometown friend, a lover of Moravian folklore. Jaroslav is a towering but gentle man who cares deeply for Ludvik. Organizer of the Ride of the Kings, he fantasizes about being a romantic medieval hero and laments the passage of old customs and church rituals. Playing the cimbalom for an unappreciative young audience on the day of the Ride, Jaroslav has a longing and an inability to escape that bring on a nearly fatal coronary attack.
Marketa, Ludvik’s university girlfriend. Marketa is a moderately bright woman whose inaccessible beauty sparks Ludvik’s romantic sensibilities. Overly serious, to the point of total gullibility, she is befuddled by Ludvik’s joke. Although she intends him no malice, she feels powerless to protect him from the Party’s judgment.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 420
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 love and belief. Lucie herself exemplifies the other side of the body/soul division. As a result of belonging to a youth gang that treated her as a sexual plaything, raping her repeatedly, Lucie cannot tolerate sex. It is significant that Kostka, not Ludvik, reintroduces her to sex (and thereby becomes guilt-ridden himself). The brokenhearted Jaroslav is identified with Ludvik’s cultural roots: “Jaroslav too (more than anyone, actually) represented the devastated values of my life....” Like Ludvik also, Jaroslav is the object of some rather dark, mordant, ironic humor.
Much of the lightness in The Joke comes from contrasting or minor characters. Obviously contrasting with Ludvik, and eventually arousing Ludvik’s jealous admiration, is the opportunistic Zemanek, a type apparently found in all political systems, able to ride each new tide to popularity. The raucous, heavy-breathing Helena just as obviously contrasts with Lucie; both are female types found in later Kundera novels. Like these contrasting characters, the numerous minor characters in The Joke are typed; for example, those in Ludvik’s penal unit could substitute for characters in a television situation comedy.