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

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I would set forth some of the main themes of Milan Kundera's The Joke as follows.

First, there is the issue of personal responsibility in opposing an authoritarian regime like that of Czechoslovakia's in the novel. The story opens at a point where the Communist regime is fully entrenched. A message on a postcard that is meant to be ironic gets the protagonist Ludvik expelled from the Party and the university and sent to a labor camp. In the atmosphere of fear and paranoia that prevails, one cannot entirely blame Ludvik's girlfriend Marketa for showing the postcard to the authorities as a means of protecting herself. But the corollary of this theme (i.e., how much we can expect anyone to be personally accountable to a friend) is the theme of fear in a totalitarian regime and its distortion of people's judgments. Ludvik's message was clearly meant to be humorous, but in a dictatorship no one knows any longer what is humorous and what isn't.

A second major theme is that of the rightness or wrongness of retribution. When Ludvik is on the outside again, having served his punishment, he seeks revenge against the leader of the tribunal that convicted him, Zemanek, by seducing Zemanek's wife, Helena. Later, when he realizes this is wrong (it's actually displaced aggression and misogyny that have motivated him), he seems to have learned something about himself and the world, and he seems to have been reconciled to the fact of coping with conditions as they are. The centerpiece of the novel's plot is arguably the Moravian folk festival called the Ride of the Kings. The characters of the novel, Ludvik, his friends Jaroslav and Kostka, and others, have different views of whether the relevance of a traditional celebration such as this can be sustained in the Communist world which has sought to overthrow so much of the past. When Ludvik decides to take part in the festival as a musician, he seems to be attempting to answer this question. But the deeper theme, as in so many works by authors who lived under Communism, is: did the Communist Party have something positive at its root, something that could be reconciled with the past and with ordinary humanity, or was it totally corrupt, existing simply as a means to the absolute power of the Party leaders? Kundera's novel poses this question.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 316

Milan Kundera has objected to attempts to give his novels narrow political readings. For example, he begins the preface to the 1982 edition of The Joke as follows:When in 1980, during a television panel discussion devoted to my works, someone called The Joke “a major indictment of Stalinism,” I was quick to interject, “Spare me your Stalinism, please. The Joke is a love story!”

Apparently the point of Kundera’s objections is that his novels are not merely political novels, not merely salvos in the Cold War, but much more. In the main tradition of the novel, Kundera is most concerned with the personal destinies of his characters in The Joke.

Yet the personal and the political are never far apart in Kundera. Ludvik’s awful experiences clearly result from doctrinaire Communist overreaction, and the “devastation” suffered by the other main characters (except possibly for Lucie, whose troubles seem to originate with her family) is also linked to the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia. As Kundera goes on to say in his preface, Ludvik and his friends are victims of “the joke history has played on them”—something of a sick joke, to be sure. The devastation visited on the individual characters has spread over the whole society—much like the blight in Oedipus Rex, a work prominently mentioned in a later Kundera novel, L’Insoutenable legerete de l’etre (1984; The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984)—and become cultural. The cultural devastation is specifically manifested in the attack on Christianity, which Kostka finds compatible with true Communism, and the decline of folk culture, as seen in the folk music and the Ride of the Kings and symbolized by Jaroslav’s heart attack. Christianity and folk culture are being replaced by a barren youth culture: Rather than be king, Jaroslav’s son prefers to go to the motorcycle races. Communism has preserved poor Czechoslovakia in body but not in soul.