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Last Reviewed 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.

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772

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 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.


(The entire section contains 1343 words.)

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