Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Jaromil, a young lyric poet. Jaromil was born into overwhelming, devoted, mother love. This devotion is a boon to his childhood but becomes increasingly odious as he grows older. It is his bad fortune to support this love wonderfully. He is a precious boy, pretty rather than handsome, and he has, for his one talent, the dainty art of lyric poetry. His genius is feminine (no one could understand the masculine and feminine humors quite so vividly as a lyric poet), and he wants, with the furious insecurity of youth, to become a man. He works at this, awkwardly, with the help of his two adult loves. One is a redheaded shop girl, for whom he conceives a great passion, and the other is the Czechoslovak Communist revolution. This leads Jaromil to great cruelty. Besides the injustice he does to his own art, making it serve the revolution, he betrays to the revolution both the brother of his redheaded lover (who has the benefit of his omnivorous jealousy) and the modern artist who had first recognized his talent and served as his mentor. He does not live long enough to regret these actions. In the tradition of lyric poets, he stands ridiculously on his dignity. Having been humiliated in public, he ignores a cold night and catches his death of fever. In the weakness of approaching death, he clings to the one certainty of his life: the love of his mother.

Jaromil’s mother

Jaromil’s mother, called Maman, an insincere woman who is acted on more than she acts and thus is treated somewhat brutally by the world. To secure some consolation from life, she has settled all of her own hopes on her son. Having mistaken the daring of her first romantic abandon for a great passion, she becomes pregnant. She lives, sometimes proudly, sometimes self-pityingly, through her loveless (and, after Jaromil, childless) marriage, her own unsettling affair with Jaromil’s radical modern art instructor, the loss of her comfortable prerevolution bourgeois life, and Jaromil’s love affairs. Always, she comes back to her one true occupation, her love for her son. Consequently, she faces the greatest disappointment of her life when he dies in early youth. He does not do so without professing (it is almost a deathbed confession) his most tender...

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The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The great bard William Shakespeare, noted for his generous, gentle manner, is evidence that poets do not have to be unstable personalities or total egotists, but Shakespeare himself observed (through one of his characters) that “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet/ Are of imagination all compact.” Such statements, plus the examples of the lives of numerous poets such as those to whom Milan Kundera refers in this novel, inform the romantic view of the poet that Kundera parodies in the figure of Jaromil. It is unclear how much credence Kundera (himself once a poet) gives this romantic view, but certainly enough to satirize it and to consider it dangerous. It is also unclear how much real talent Jaromil is supposed to have (the examples of his poetry quoted in the novel do not inspire confidence) and how much he is a pseudopoet, an imitation of a poet. Part of Kundera’s point may be that some would-be poets believe that they must live up to a romantic image, that living up to the image makes them poets, or that the image justifies their personal behavior.

The outlines of the image are fairly clear—a sensitive child is born, shows talent early, is shunned by classmates, retreats into self, produces masterpieces while failing at personal relationships, and dies young. Jaromil fits the outline except for the masterpieces. The outline is subsumed and given unity by Jaromil’s leading trait, his egotism. His self-absorption is indicated by the lack of names for the other main characters, by his fantasies about Xavier, and by his sex life—his masturbation, impotency, and relationship with the redheaded girl. “Life is elsewhere” for Jaromil in the sense that other people and the world exist only as they relate to him in his solipsistic vision.

Yet Jaromil is also the product of Maman, who shares his existential problem. She is wrapped up in her own romantic vision, and Jaromil is little more than a projection of herself, her creation, a substitute for her disappointed hopes. Through him she can live out the romantic life she missed. When real life and romance offer themselves to her, she, like her son, fails to meet them halfway. For Maman, too, “life is elsewhere,” but exactly where is hard to say.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Donahue, Bruce. “Laughter and Ironic Humor in the Fiction of Milan Kundera,” in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction. XXV (Winter, 1984), pp. 67-76.

Fuentes, Carlos. “The Other K,” in TriQuarterly. LI (Spring, 1981), pp. 256-275.

Harkins, William E., and Paul I. Trensky, eds. Czech Literature Since 1956: A Symposium, 1980.