The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter by George Etherege (1676)

‘Damn your authors, Courtage; women are the prettiest things we can fool away our time with.’
(Sir Fopling Flutter)

Sir George Etherege (1636-92) came from a middle-class family, may or may not have gone to Cambridge (the record is unclear), he definitely studied law at the Inns of Court then went to Paris with his Royalist father.

Etherege who wrote just three plays, but the first, The Comical Revenge or Love in a Tub, holds the distinction of being the first new play performed in London’s theatres after they were re-opened at the restoration of Charles II in 1660. It was premiered in 1664 and although most of it consisted of old-style heroic verse, it contained comic scenes depicting sophisticated banter between men and women which were entirely new and caught the spirit of the new age.

Etherege holds a distinguished place in English literature as one of the ‘big five’ in Restoration comedy – George Etherege, William Congreve, William Wycherley, George Farquhar, and Sir John Vanbrugh. He is credited as the playwright who invented the comedy of manners and led the way to the achievements of Congreve and Sheridan.

The second of Etherege’s plays, She Would if She Could, was performed in 1668. It is ‘a comedy of action, wit and spirit, although censured by some as frivolous and immoral’. In it Etherege first showed at length the fantasy version of contemporary London in which flirtation is the only serious business in life.

The Man of Mode was the third of his plays and the most celebrated.

The Man of Mode

The protagonist of The Man of Mode is Dorimant, a notorious libertine and man-about-town. He is said to have been based on John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, the most notorious debaucher in Charles II’s court of noted debauchers and by far the most obscene poet in English literature (but then, as such a notorious figure, Rochester’s name was easily attached to any fictional libertine).

Brief plot summary

The libertine Dorimant tries to win over the young heiress Harriet, and at the same time disengage himself from his previous affair with Mrs. Loveit. Despite the subtitle, the ‘man of mode’, Sir Fopling Flutter, is only one of several marginal characters.

Extended plot summary

Act I Dorimant’s chambers – The story opens with Dorimant addressing a billet-doux to Mrs. Loveit, with whom he is having an affair, to lie about his whereabouts. A working class orange seller, Foggy Nan, is admitted to his rooms and informs him about the arrival in London of grand Lady Woodvil and her beautiful heiress daughter, Harriet, who’s been watching and asking about Dorimant.

Dorimant‘s closest friend and fellow rake Medley arrives and offers more information about Harriet ‘vastly rich’. Dorimant expresses his wish to break off his relationship with Mrs. Loveit, being already involved with her younger friend Bellinda. The two friends plot to encourage Mrs. Loveit‘s jealousy by getting a woman acquaintance to talk up Dorimant‘s new affair so that when Dorimant visits her, Mrs L will be furious and it will be she who ends the relationship. Comic interlude with the poor shoemaker.

Young Bellair, the handsome acquaintance of both men, enters and relates his infatuation with Emilia, a woman serving as companion to his aunt, Lady Townley. His relatively innocent devotion is ridiculed. Admiration of Dorimant in his fine suit leads into news that the noted fop Sir Fopling Flutter has newly arrived in London from Paris. Bellair reports that he’s been attending the theatre and visiting Mrs Loveit.

This is perfect for Dorimant‘s plan because he can accuse Mrs Loveit of intriguing with FoplingBellair exits and returns with the news that his father has arrived in town and is lodging in the same place as his Emilia – i.e. at Lady Townley‘s. (Lady Townley and Old Bellair are sister and brother i.e. Bellair is Old Bellair‘s son and Lady Townley‘s nephew). Old Bellair informs his son that he has arranged a marriage for him and he must be obedient or be disinherited.

A letter arrives from a semi-literate whore Dorimant is ‘seeing’ begging for money, and Dorimant and Medley think it will be an excellent joke to give her some so she can go and lord it at the opera.

Act II Sc 1: At Lady Townley’sLady Townley and Emilia discuss the arrival of Bellair‘s father. Bellair pops by briefly to tell them his father insists he marries the rich heiress, Harriet. Old Bellair flirts with Emilia unaware his son is in love with her. (Young Bellair has acquiesced in his father’s wishes for the time being.) Medley arrives and entertains the ladies with the latest gossip from round town.

Scene 2: Mrs. Loveit and her servant Pert, who asks Mrs L why she likes Dorimant despite his ignoring her. Belinda arrives: if you remember, Dorimant‘s plan is to get Belinda to describe Dorimant paying excessive attention to a masked woman at the theatre, and so make Mrs Loveit mad with jealousy. The plan works perfectly and by the time Dorimant breezes in Mrs L is furious and accuses him of unfaithfulness.

In his defence, Dorimant a) accuses Belinda of libelling him (they both know this is play acting) and b) counter-attacks with the accusation that Mrs L is spending her time with Sir Fopling. She is scandalised at this lie but Dorimant storms out. Mrs L is livid and vows hellfire and revenge, that was part of the plan – not part of the plan is the way Belinda is unsettled at seeing how cynically Dorimant plays Mrs Loveit and, not unnaturally, wonders if he will behave the same when it comes to dumping her.

Act III Sc 1: At Lady Woodville’s – Harriet is stroppy and difficult with her servant, Busy. She is very similar to Hellena in The Rover i.e. she is a canny, scheming witty woman, as clever as any man, yet at the same time claims to know nothing of love, to be an innocent in the ways of love:

HELLENA: I wou’d fain know as much as you, which makes me so inquisitive; nor is’t enough to know you’re a Lover, unless you tell me too, who ’tis you sigh for.
FLORINDA: When you are a Lover, I’ll think you fit for a Secret of that nature.
HELLENA: ’Tis true, I was never a Lover yet…
(The Rover)

HARRIET: I know not what ’tis to love, but I have made pretty remarks by being now and then where lovers meet. Where did you leave their gravities?…
DORIMANT: Where had you all that scorn and coldness in your look?
HARRIET: From nature, sir; pardon my want of art: I have not learnt those softnesses and languishings which now in faces are so much in fashion
(The Man of Mode)

Harriet is the young woman Old Bellair wants his son to marry but a) Bellair is in love with Emilia b) Harriet has taken a fancy to Dorimant. Realising that they are mismatched, Bellair and Harriet make a comically cynical vow to be unfaithful and not in love with each other, and this leads into a comic sequence where they then play-act being bashful young lovers, wryly commenting on each other’s performance of the cliches of love as they do so, for the benefit of their parents, ‘their gravities’ as they call them, Lady Woodvil and Old Bellair.

Scene 2: At Lady Townley’s Lady T and Emilia and Medley are gossiping when Belinda arrives and tells them how upset Mrs Loveit is, and has barely finished explaining her fury at Dorimant before Dorimant himself arrives. Bellinda complains about his behaviour but lets herself be talked into a) persuading Mrs L to go to the Mall later so Dorimant can contrive a meeting between her and Fopling b) agreeing to a romantic rendezvous with Dorimant.

Enter Sir Fopling Flutter but Dorimant cautions Medley not to mock him – he needs him for his plan. So Dorimant and Medley slyly encourage Sir Fopling to play up, to exaggerate his knowledge of Paris, fashion, his fine clothes, and his ornate way of speaking. Mistaking their encouragement for genuine friendship, Fopling falls for the idea that Mrs Loveit fancies him.

Scene 3: The Mall A complex scene of multiple encounters and conversations, the chief of which are: Dorimant for the first time meets Harriet; her guardian Lady Woodvil is there, scared of this wicked devil Dorimant she’s heard so much about, but she is led by the other characters to mistake Fopling for Dorimant. Fopling turns out to be a genuine hit with Mrs Loveit, at least she pretends so, and as she and Fopling leave amid much laughter, Medley ribs Dorimant that seeing her laughing and happy has made him jealous. Dorimant tries to deny it, but it’s true.

Act IV Scene 1: at Lady Townley’s – A big dance. Old Bellair has asides to the audience in which he makes it plain he is in love with Emilia. Dorimant is there, masquerading as one ‘Mr Courtage’ because Harriet’s guardian, Lady Woodvil, has an exaggerated fear of ‘Dorimant’. In this guise of Courtage, Dorimant enjoys politely playing up to old Lady Woodvil‘s prejudices about the good old days and these horrible modern times.

DORIMANT: Forms and ceremonies, the only things that uphold quality and greatness, are now shamefully laid aside and neglected.
LADY WOODVIL: Well! this is not the women’s age, let ’em think what they will; lewdness is the business now, love was the business in my time.

It is a bravura display of disguise and play-acting, a core ingredient of Restoration comedy.

Dorimant engages in extended repartee with Harriet and, in an aside, tells the audience that he loves her. Sir Fopling turns up in masquerade, with a retinue of French musicians and nearly gives the game away by calling Dorimant by his name, till Dorimant tells him he is here under the pseudonym Mr Courtage.

All the characters encourage Sir Fopling to boast about his time in Paris and then encourage him to dance, not realising they are guying him. Dorimant becomes impatient because he had made an appointment with Belinda who – we have seen in some asides – didn’t like his way of putting off Mrs LoveitDorimant now scares Lady Woodvil by claiming that the wicked Dorimant is present in disguise, proceeds to see the ladies to their coaches, then heads off home, these latter (offstage) activities reported by young Bellair as he enters to see Old Bellair and Medley.

Scene 2: Dorimant’s lodgings Seems like Dorimant and Belinda have had sex. She is regretting it and begging Dorimant not to tell anyone, and never to see Mrs Loveit in private again. In the middle of this semi-argument, the servant announces the arrival of Bellair, Medley and Fopling. Mortified, Belinda exits down the backstairs.

Once the men have entered, Fopling makes a fool of himself, singing a new song he has written, and the others encourage his ‘love’ of Mrs Loveit, before departing. Dorimant confides to the others he’s quickly off to Mrs Loveit‘s.

Scene 3: The men carrying the chair Belinda is escaping from Dorimant‘s lodgings in take her to Pall Mall instead of home. As she gets out of the chair, she is spied by Mrs Loveit‘s footman who is nearby. Damn! The first night she’s spent with Dorimant and she bumps someone who’ll tell his former – and vengeful – lover.

Act V Scene 1: Mrs Loveit’s Belinda’s arrival is announced by the very same servant who saw her being set down in Pall Mall by ‘Ambling Harry’ who Mrs Loveit knows is the chairman who plies from Dorimant‘s house i.e. Mrs Loveit immediately guesses that Belinda is having an affair with Dorimant. In the same moment, she suspects the part Belinda played in making her angry with Dorimant in Act 1 i.e. that she conspired with Dorimant against her.

MRS LOVEIT: There is no truth in friendship neither. Women as well as men – all are false, or all are so to me at least.

But Belinda just about manages to save the day. She had threatened the chairman with the sack unless they lie and say they picked her up in the Strand. When Mrs Loveit sends her man to interrogate the chairmen, they duly tell this lie – that they picked Belinda in the Strand, not at Dorimant‘s – and as a result Mrs Loveit decides Belinda was telling the truth after all and feels guilty at suspecting her.

At that moment Dorimant is announced, as visiting Mrs Loveit and now Belinda is horrified to discover that the man she’s just slept with and swore faithfulness to her, is, within the hour, paying a visit to his old lover. As a result Belinda feels faint and Mrs Loveit‘s servant, Pert, takes her into the other room to lie down. Pert delivers some pretty ripe double entendres about something lying heavy on her stomach (i.e. she detects that Belinda has recently had sex).

Enter Dorimant and he and Mrs Loveit proceed to have a terrific quarrel circling round the idea that by being seen laughing with Fopling she has debased herself and humiliated him. He throws the love letters she sent him back in her face.

Dorimant is just telling Mrs Loveit that, if it’s true she has no feelings for Fopling, she should meet him one more time in Pall Mall and laugh him to scorn – when Belinda is brought back into the room.

Dorimant is thunderstruck to see her, realising she will realise he is there to pay court to LoveitBelinda joins Mrs Loveit in scorning Dorimant, through only he and the audience know that there is the real animus of a scorned lover behind her words. When even Pert joins in the chorus of women damning him, Dorimant knows it’s time to leave.

Mrs Loveit orders a servant to follow him and exits breathing fury and revenge. Leaving Belinda solo wondering why on earth she ever slept with Dorimant.

Scene 2: Lady Townley’s Things come to a head. Medley and Bellair and Mrs Townley have invited a chaplain who has  already married Bellair and Emilia – but they have barely kissed before Old Bellair arrives with Harriet and a chaplain who he has hired to marry Bellair to Harriet — so they bundle chaplain 1 into a hiding place!

While things are on hold, Emilia teases Harriet that she loves Dorimant, which Harriet denies. Dorimant promptly arrives and he and Harriet have an extended dialogue in which she matches him point for point, as he declares his true, unironical love and she refutes, rejects and disbelieves him.

Chaplain 1 is released from his hiding place as Old Bellair returns onstage and amazes the old man by announcing that his son is already married!

Enter Belinda and Mrs Loveit. Now the entire cast is onstage. Dorimant sort of makes it up to Mrs Loveit by explaining ‘the other woman’ is Harriet who he is motivated to marry because her fortune will patch up his ruined estate. Dorimant tries to make it up to Belinda i.e. sleeping with her and promptly marrying someone else…

Meanwhile, Harriet rebels against Lady Woodvil and announces that she loves Dorimant. Fopling turns up and Mrs Loveit rebuts him. He doesn’t care; he is writing a wonderful ballet which will entrance the entire sex!

Harriet is blunt to Mrs Loveit, saying Dorimant has been her god long enough. Mrs Loveit vows to go home and never go out again. Why not go to a nunnery? says Harriet rudely.

Lady Woodvil now discovers that the man she thought was named Mr Courtage is none other than the wicked Dorimant, but everyone speaks in his favour and he was so sweet to her earlier that her heart has softened and she almost approves of him marrying her (rich) niece. She doesn’t agree to their wedding straight away, but Dorimant breaks the habits of a lifetime and promises to come and visit Harriet in her big empty country house.

Harriet then has a speech making it sound empty and lonely, echoing to the sound of rooks. It’s an odd and powerful image in what is otherwise such an urban, London play.

The play ends with music and dancing and Old Bellair encourages the audience to congratulate his son and Emilia.


Cynical manipulation of others

The entire plot consists of the rake Dorimant’s attempts to juggle his various love affairs. There is genuinely heartless cynicism in the way he plans to simply dump Mrs Loveit simply because he’s bored of her. Dorimant’s entire life is devoted to toying with women:

‘Next to the coming to a good understanding with a new mistress, I love a quarrel with an old one; but the devil’s in’t, there has been such a calm in my affairs of late, I have not had the pleasure of making a woman so much as break her fan, to be sullen, or forswear herself these three days.’

Presumably these attitudes were deliberately exaggerated, their heartlessness and cynicism played up, to make them more ‘shocking and comic.

Cynicism about people’s behaviour, specially round sexual morality

‘I have known many women make a difficulty of losing a maidenhead who have afterwards made none of a cuckold.’

When you ponder statements like this you realise there is nothing funny about them except insofar as they are wilfully cynical, the humour derives from the conveying of an entire worldview about love and sex and men and women which is elaborately, exaggeratedly, cynical and superficial.

The cultivation of sin and immorality

The aristocratic figures seek to promote licentiousness and drunkenness at every available opportunity. Thus when Dorimant dismissively orders Medley to give the shoemaker half a crown, Medley insists it is only on condition that the shoemaker uses it to get ‘bloody drunk’.

Conservative moralists had, for centuries, thought a chief defence of having an aristocratic class was that they should provide models of morality for the masses to copy. Clearly, there is a cynical pleasure to be had in puffed-up aristocrats behaving in exactly the opposite manner, spitting in the faces of Puritans and other earnest social reformers, mocking any attempts to take more or less anything seriously.

The reversal of values

In this upside-down world it is virtuous to womanise, to drink to get drunk, to gamble away fortunes, to toy with women’s affections, to cynically manipulate all around you. Religion – real genuine religious faith – is ridiculed, and education is scorned as leading to the production of shallow fops.

‘[Fopling] is like many others, beholding to his education for making him so eminent a coxcomb; many a fool had been lost to the world had their indulgent parents wisely bestowed neither learning nor good breeding on ’em.’

Parents and the older generation are mocked for their seriousness. Harriet ironically refers to her and Bellair’s parents as ‘their gravities’. In fact, everything is mocked.

Wit and repartee

Shakespeare’s comedies are full of banter and word play, which can, admittedly, sometimes get knotted and dense. Sometimes the flow of puns and double meanings in Shakespeare confuses even the people exchanging them (which can then be another cause of humour).

Restoration comedy uses much plainer language in the sense that it is more purely factual. There is occasional wit and set pieces of repartee, particularly between the rake figure and the clever female lead, but even here the play is between ideas more than words, as such. Overall there is a greater focus on elegance of expression, on a kind of melliflousness. The kind of clever word play which clots Shakespearian comedy is largely absent.

Gamini Salgado in his introduction to the Penguin edition of the play says of Etherege’s prose style, compared to that of the first half of the century, that it has a more orderly and elegant rhythm, but is harder and less resonant. I would add that the language has lost almost all its poetic force. Metaphors of sin and redemption and love’s flames etc feel mechanical, have become an empty social conventional rhetoric.

Anyway, that’s how language was used between knowing aristocrats, at any rate. Regarding the rude mechanicals or working classes, there is a lot more of what you could call simple abuse. Dorimant casually insults all the lackeys, servants and tradespeople he comes into contact with, describing the orange woman and shoemaker as ‘vermin’, ‘double tripe’, ‘a cartload of scandal’ and other amusing insults. His footman he describes as ‘eternal blockhead and sot’.

The class-based nature of his arrogance is combined with ultra-cynicism when he tells the shoemaker:

‘Whoring and swearing are vices too genteel for a shoemaker’

Who in turn makes the comic point that the aristocracy will soon monopolise all the sins and vices so completely that there’ll be none left over for poor folk.

Fopling may be absurdly mannered but expresses the same upper-class prejudices as the other toffs. When a servant tells him his name is Trott, Fopling bursts out:

SIR FOPLING: Oh, unsufferable! Trott, Trott, Trott! there’s nothing so barbarous as the names of our English servants.

Insulting marriage

Salgado in his introduction makes the point that one of the clumsiest aspects of Restoration comedy is the way all the characters cynically abuse the institution of marriage for the first four acts, before suddenly converting to thinking it the most perfect state of being, in the fifth.

There are certainly some choice insults of marriage here:

‘’Zbud, there’s never a man i’ the town lives more like a gentleman with his wife than I do. I never mind her motions, she never inquires into mine; we speak to one another civilly, hate one another heartily, and because ’tis vulgar to lie and soak together, we have each of us our several settlebed.’

Old Bellair explains to his son:

OLD BELLAIR: You need not look so grum, sir; a wife is no curse when she brings the blessing of a good estate with her.

Elsewhere, Medley comments:

‘Your nephew ought to conceal it for a time, madam, since marriage has lost its good name.’

References to ‘this age’

It is part of the mystique or worldview of the plays that they are being staged in a specially depraved time:

  • DORIMANT: An antiquated beauty may be allowed to be out of humour at the freedoms of the present.
  • OLD BELLAIR: I like her countenance and her behaviour well, she has a modesty that is not common i’ this age.
  • LADY WOODVIL: The depraved appetite of this vicious age tastes nothing but green fruit, and loathes it when ’tis kindly ripened [i.e. prefers young girls to mature women]

1. There’s a kind of self-regarding, self-satisfaction with living in such a very depraved time. 2. Every age has considered itself especially fallen and corrupt – you can find the same kind of references in literature from the ancient Greeks, through Chaucer and Shakespeare.

Gender stereotypes

Feminist critics generally have it in for all these male Restoration writers. Jane Spenser in her introduction to The Rover repeatedly refers to the ‘misogyny’ of the Restoration literary world, and there is, without doubt, an enormous amount of anti-women rhetoric, and cynical manipulation of women characters.

But reading these plays without the blinkers of feminist ideology, it’s just as obvious that all the characters are stereotyped, manipulated and mocked. The most manipulated and mocked person in this play is a man, Sir Fopling Flutter, who exists solely to be laughed at. Other entire groups are mocked; for example the entire older generation are ridiculed, all servants and the entire working class are ridiculed.

And, in these plays, men are subject to just as much withering criticism and virulent stereotyping as women. In fact the plays work through the systematic stereotyping of both genders:

Stereotyping women

  • ‘Faith, women are i’ the right when they jealously examine our letters, for in them we always first discover our decay of passion’
  • MEDLEY: I wait upon you, and I hope (though women are commonly unreasonable)…
  • YOUNG BELLAIR: ’Tis not unnatural for you women to be a little angry if you miss a conquest, though you would slight the poor man were he in your power.
  • EMILIA: There are afflictions in love, Mr. Dorimant.
    DORIMANT: You women make ’em, who are commonly as unreasonable in that as you are at play…
  • MRS LOVEIT: Those noisy fools, however you despise ’em, have good qualities, which weigh more (or ought at least) with us women than all the pernicious wit you have to boast of…
  • DORIMANT: There is an inbred falsehood in women which inclines ’em still to them whom they may most easily deceive.
  • MEDLEY: Besides, ’tis a common error among women to believe too well of them they know and too ill of them they don’t.
  • MEDLEY: Like a woman, I find you must be struggled with before one brings you to what you desire…
  • HARRIET: Did you not tell me there was no credit to be given to faces? that women nowadays have their passions as much at will as they have their complexions, and put on joy and sadness, scorn and kindness, with the same ease they do their paint and patches—Are they the only counterfeits?

If you only quote these kinds of statements, then the plays can be made to look monstrously misogynist. But they need to be balanced with the scores of times when men are mocked, stereotyped and ridiculed.

Stereotyping men

  • MRS LOVEIT: There’s nothing but falsehood and impertinence in this world; all men are villains or fools.
  • DORIMANT: Indeed, the little hope I found there was of her, in the state she was in, has made him by my advice contribute something towards the changing of her condition. [enter YOUNG BELLAIR] Dear Bellair, by heavens I thought we had lost thee; men in love are never to be reckoned on when we would form a company.
  • HARRIET: The sordidness of men’s natures, I know, makes ’em willing to flatter and comply with the rich, though they are sure never to be the better for ’em
  • HARRIET: Mr. Bellair! let us walk, ’tis time to leave him; men grow dull when they begin to be particular.
  • MEDLEY: But I have known men fall into dangerous relapses when they have found a woman inclining to another.
  • HARRIET: Men are seldom in the right when they guess at a woman’s mind; would she whom he loves loved him no better!
  • HARRIET: In men who have been long hardened in sin we have reason to mistrust the first signs of repentance
  • MRS LOVEIT: There’s nothing but falsehood and impertinence in this world; all men are villains or fools.

Mocking both sexes

And then there are plenty of places where characters mock both sexes equally, in effect ridiculing the human race.

  • HARRIET: That women should set up for beauty as much in spite of nature as some men have done for wit!
  • MRS LOVEIT: He bring her! His chair stands near Dorimant’s door, and always brings me from thence – Run and ask him where he took her up; go, there is no truth in friendship neither. Women as well as men – all are false, or all are so to me at least.
  • MRS LOVEIT: The man who loves above his quality does not suffer more from the insolent impertinence of his mistress than the woman who loves above her understanding does from the arrogant presumptions of her friend.

Stereotyping the old and their silly laments for the good old days

  • LADY WOODVIL: Well! this is not the women’s age, let ’em think what they will; lewdness is the business now, love was the business in my time.
  • LADY WOODVIL: Unsufferable at thirty! That they are in the wrong, Mr. Courtage, at five-and-thirty there are living proofs enough to convince ’em.
    DORIMANT: Ay, madam, there’s Mrs Setlooks, Mrs Droplip, and my Lady Lowd; show me among all our opening buds a face that promises so much beauty as the remains of theirs…

Stereotyping Jews

  • MEDLEY: Is it not great indiscretion for a man of credit, who may have money enough on his word, to go and deal with Jews who for little sums make men enter into bonds and give judgments?

Stereotyping the lower classes

  • HARRIET: She [Harriet’s servant, Busy] has a voice will grate your ears worse than a cat-call, and dresses so ill she’s scarce fit to trick up a yeoman’s daughter on a holiday.

Stereotyping the dullness of the countryside

YOUNG BELLAIR: Are you in love?
HARRIET: Yes, with this dear town, to that degree I can scarce endure the country in landscapes and in hangings.
YOUNG BELLAIR: What a dreadful thing ’twould be to be hurried back to Hampshire?
HARRIET: Ah! name it not!

Or:

BELINDA: Pity me rather, my dear, where I have been so tired with two or three country gentlewomen, whose conversation has been more insufferable than a country fiddle.

Or:

MRS LOVEIT: Where do these country gentlewomen lodge, I pray?
BELINDA: In the Strand, over against the Exchange.
PERT: That place is never without a nest of ’em; they are always as one goes by fleering in balconies or
staring out of windows.

HARRIET: This is more dismal than the country, Emilia; pity me who am going to that sad place.

In other words, the entire play is a tissue of stereotypes. The characters repeat almost nothing but stereotypes, cliches and truisms, which the audience are intended to recognise with a knowing smile, and applaud. Picking out only the anti-women sentiments seems to me to miss the bigger picture of the generally misanthropic cynicism of the total worldview.

P.S. A mirror up to society

The verse prologue, written by the improbably named Sir Car Scrope, contains a particularly clear expression of the age-old doctrine that the theatre holds up a mirror to society.

For, heaven be thank’d, ’tis not so wise an age
But your own follies may supply the stage.
Though often plough’d, there’s no great fear the soil
Should barren grow by the too frequent toil,
While at your doors are to be daily found
Such loads of dunghill to manure the ground.
’Tis by your follies that we players thrive,
As the physicians by diseases live;
And as each year some new distemper reigns,
Whose friendly poison helps t’increase their gains,
So among you there starts up every day
Some new unheard-of fool for us to play.


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The Joke by Milan Kundera (1967)

‘A melancholy duet about the schism between body and soul’ (Milan Kundera in the Introduction)

Czech history – a postwar snapshot

Kundera was born in 1929 in Brno, Czechoslovakia. When he was ten the Nazis annexed his country and imposed Nazi rule, when he was 16 the Russians liberated his homeland, and when he was 19 the Russians supported the February 1948 coup which brought a communist government to power. Initially, many of the brightest and best in the country celebrated a new era which promised to deliver a new world of freedom and justice and equality for all. Soon enough the government showed its Stalinist colours, rounding up not only conservatives and capitalists, big landowners, bankers and so on, but also socialist and liberal writers and critics. Hundreds of thousands were sacked from their jobs, around a hundred thousand were imprisoned and tens of thousands executed as spies and traitors and saboteurs, including friends and colleagues of Kundera’s.

After putting up with nearly twenty years of oppressive rule, in late 1967 and early 1968 rising protests against the regime was met by a new, more liberal generation of party leaders, who set about loosening communist policy, reining back the dreaded secret police, and allowing a flowering of expression and political criticism in the media, newspapers, radio and TV, and among artists and writers. Which all became known as ‘the Prague Spring’.

The growing political, economic and cultural liberalism of Czechoslovakia led to fears that it might be about to leave the Soviet-backed security and economic alliances, and that its example might undermine Russia’s grip on all Eastern Europe. So in August 1968 some 500,000 Russian and other eastern bloc soldiers rode tanks into Czechoslovakia, occupying all the cities and strategic points, overthrowing the liberal government and reinstalling a hardline Stalinist regime. Over a hundred thousand Czechs fled the country, and another massive wave of repression and punishment threw an entire generation of professionals out of their white collar jobs, forcing them into menial labouring jobs.

Kundera, just turning 40, was among this group. Back in 1948 he had been an enthusiastic communist, joining the party when still at school. He welcomed the 1948 coup and the arrival of a new world, and went, as a student, to study film at university. But his outspoken wit and anti-establishment stance got him in trouble with the authorities and he was expelled from the party in 1950. After a hiatus in his studies, he was, however, readmitted to the university, completed his studies in 1952, and was appointed a lecturer in world literature. In 1956 he was readmitted to the Communist Party. For the next ten years he was a dutiful communist and academic.

Kundera played a peripheral role in the Prague Spring, looking on as his students went on strike, organised meetings and rallies, devised slogans which they printed on posters and banners and carried on marches and spray-painted on the walls of the capital. But even after the Russians invaded, he continued to defend the Communist Party, engaging in polemical debate with more thoroughly anti-communist intellectuals, insisting that the communist regime was capable of reform in a humanist direction.

Only in the early 1970s, as it became clear that the new hardline government was imposing an inflexibly authoritarian regime, did Kundera finally abandon his dreams that communism could be reformed. In 1975 he moved to France, taking a teaching job at Rennes, then moving on to Paris. He was stripped of his Czech citizenship in 1979, and legally became a French citizen in 1981.

By the 1980s, when his novels began to become widely popular in the West, Kundera had, in other words, been on a long gruelling journey of personal and intellectual disillusionment.

Themes in Milan Kundera’s fiction

Communism

This all explains why, although the main action of the novels is often set contemporaneously – in the later 1960s and 1970s just before they were published – their root is in that 1948 coup. Again and again, in all of his books, he returns like a soldier revisiting the scene of his post-traumatic stress disorder, to the primal trauma of the revolution (in The Farewell Party, Jakub – a key character – describes it as the obsession of someone who’s been in a bad car crash to endlessly relive the trauma). Again and again he examines all its aspects, reliving the jubilation and sense of emotional awakening he and his generation experienced, and then – in the rest of the text – generally delineating the long, grim consequences the advent of communist rule had on so many people and so many aspects of life.

So Kundera’s work is characterised by his obsessive return, again and again, to relive aspects of the coup and re-examine what it meant, recasting the events as fable, fairy tale, allegory, in a host of genres and forms, in order to try and work through what was for him, the primal imaginative and psychological trauma.

Cynicism and the absurd

There’s no-one as cynical as a disillusioned revolutionary. All Kundera’s books bespeak an immensely jaded cynic, with a bitter view of human nature. What makes them interesting is he keeps his corrosive cynicism under control, and deploys it strategically to dramatise and emphasise his plots. What I mean is – he will often create one particular character who is extremely jaded and disillusioned and cynical, and let that character give full vent to (what we can guess is) Kundera’s own bitterness, against optimism, against utopian politics, against idealistic revolutions, against unimaginative party apparatchiks who carry out orders without reflecting. BUT – these characters are often set in juxtaposition with other characters, often with sunnier, happier outlooks, and often the cynical characters are proved to be completely wrong.

So he creates dramatic structures in which his bitter cynicism can be forcefully expressed but is always careful to balance and control them with other points of view. Eventually, as we shall see in our analysis of The Joke, what emerges is less cynicism as such, than an all-consuming sense of the utter absurdity of human existence: that nobody’s intentions come out as they mean them to, that all human perceptions, understandings, analyses and goals are absurd.

And this doesn’t necessarily mean bleakly, nihilistically absurd. it can mean ridiculously, comically, even light-heartedly absurd.

The personal and the private

If the communist government could nationalise entire industries, dispossess the rich of their belongings, collectivise the farms, determine what jobs each citizen is allotted, take over control of all newspapers, radio and TV, and monitor everything every citizen published or wrote, even in private letters and diaries – the one area of life it could not easily control was the citizens’ love lives, in particular their sex lives.

Sex plays a huge role in Kundera’s fiction, on one reading it is arguably his central theme, and some of his descriptions of sexual encounters between characters are immensely powerful and erotic. And, if you are a card-carrying feminist, I can see how the unrelenting emphasis on the predatory sexual stance of almost all the male characters can become claustrophobic and, eventually, oppressive. I am a heterosexual man, and I have gotten a little tired of the way all of the male characters are obsessed with sex, and with very straightforward, vanilla, penetrative sex, at that. Many elements of his obsession with male predatory sexuality now seem very, very outdated to modern readers.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that sex performs two other functions in Kundera’s fiction.

1. Given that it was impossible for citizens of Czechoslovakia to write or publish what they felt, to write poems or plays or novels or stories that wouldn’t be censored by the authorities, let alone make films or TV documentaries or radio programmes, or even put on festivals or meetings which didn’t go unmonitored by the authorities – given that almost all forms of expression were banned or heavily censored and controlled – then sex – the sexual encounter between a man and a woman (that’s all it ever is in Kundera’s traditional mindset) can be a theatre of the intellect and the emotions, a place where all kinds of thoughts and moods and opinions which are utterly banned in the public sphere can be expressed in the private realm of the bedroom.

2. But the most dominant idea which emerges is Kundera’s fundamental concept of absurdity, the absurdity of the human condition. When I mentioned to a friend that I was rereading all of Kundera, she said, ‘Oh my God, he’s so sexy, so erotic!’ But the odd thing is that, studying the texts, you realise that many of the sexual couplings which take place are actually quite repugnant. In several of the novels men force themselves on women who are very very reluctant to have sex. There is at least one instance of brutal gang rape. And most of the other couplings take place between people who have ludicrously misjudged each other’s intentions. A good example of which lies at the heart of The Joke.

The Joke – structure and style

The Joke was Kundera’s first novel. The end page states that it was finished in December 1965, when Kundera was thirty-six i.e. it is not a young man’s book, it has been long meditated on. In fact, towards the end, the protagonists’ age itself becomes a topic of reflection, see below.

The Joke is divided into seven parts which are listed on the Contents page.

  1. Ludvik (10 pages)
  2. Helena (10 pages)
  3. Ludvik (84 pages)
  4. Jaroslav (34 pages)
  5. Ludvik (40 pages)
  6. Kostka (30 pages)
  7. Ludvik, Jaroslav, Helena (58 pages)

Which tells us straightaway the names and genders of the main protagonists, and that the main figure is going to be Ludvik, who has more appearances, and more pages devoted to him (134 of the book’s 267 pages), than all the others put together.

Kundera’s prose style is flat and factual…

The sections are named like this because each one presents a narration in that character’s voice, and Kundera makes an obvious effort to distinguish their voices. Ludvik, for example, is self-centred and factual in his approach. Helena’s style is immediately different, in that her sentences are made up of numerous clauses which all run into each other. Maybe this is an attempt to capture a more ‘feminine’ stream of consciousness, and noticing this reminds me of James Joyce and Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy at the end of Ulysses. However, Kundera is a very different writer from Joyce.

Joyce had a miraculous, Shakespearian grasp of the infinite range of the English language and, in Ulysses, made it explode into a multi-coloured firework display, melting and reforming words and phrases, and mixing them with other languages to create an extraordinary verbal extravaganza.

Kundera is the opposite. His language is pretty flat and boring. Maybe this is the fault of the translation, but I don’t think so. No, the interest of the book doesn’t stem from the words but from:

  1. a complex, farcical and thought-provoking plot
  2. from the complex interplay of the handful of characters caught up in the plot
  3. but most of all from what the characters think about the events they’re caught up in and activate; the characters are endlessly reflecting, thinking, pondering and analysing their motives

…because Kundera is not a descriptive writer but an intellectual, analytical author

This is what it means to say that Kundera is an intellectual writer. We barely find out what any of his characters look like (having read to the end of the book I have no clue what Ludvik actually looks like, what colour his hair or eyes are, whether he’s tall or short or fat or thin).

1. Analysis Instead we are incessantly fed with what the characters are thinking. And their thinking almost always takes the form of analysis. Even when they’re thinking about their love lives – and they spend most of their time thinking about their love lives – they are thinking about them in an analytical way. When they think about other people, even their supposed beloveds, the people they’re married to or in love with or planning to have an affair with – they tend to think of them as categories of person, as types which fit into certain typologies, and must be managed and handled as types.

Thus Ludvik thinks of Zemanek as The Betrayer and of Zemanek’s wife, Helena, as Instrument For Revenge, and remembers Lucie as being Ideal Pure Femininity.

2. Deconstruction But the book is intellectual in another way, which is that the entire story has been dismantled and analysed out into separate elements. The text itself is made up of parts like a jigsaw puzzle. As the index indicates, Kundera conceived a story – then he dismantled it into a set of disparate narratives given from the points of view of four main characters. Like a forensic scientist investigating a complex chunk of organic matter by submitting it to a set of procedures designed to identify the basic elements which make it up.

3. Multiple points of view So, although – as per point 1 – all the characters tend to think of each other as types or categories – the use of multiple points of view almost always undermines their analyses, showing just how wrong they are. Thus it’s only about page 100, when we first hear from a completely different character outside Ludvik’s worldview, Jaroslav, that we see things from a completely different perspective and learn that Ludvik is not the master narrator of events but is himself also a type – the Cynic, the Man Who Abandoned Folk Music For The Revolution – and a type very much caught up in events, misunderstanding and misreading other people.

In some ways the heart of the book only comes with the thirty pages devoted to the character named Kostka, where we see the world through his eyes and gain a completely different perspective on Ludvik’s history, and on his pivotal relationship with Lucie, showing the Ludvik was completely wrong in everything he thought about his one true love.

Thus:

  1. not only do the characters obsessively analyse their own motives and other peoples’
  2. and the narrator analyses his characters’ analyses
  3. but also, by juxtaposing characters’ analyses against each other, Kundera performs a further level of analysis, a kind of meta-analysis of the analyses

See what I mean by a very intellectual author.

The Joke – the plot

The book is set around the time it was published, the mid 1960s. But to understand it you have to realise that its roots lie 15 years earlier, at the period of the 1948 Communist coup and its immediate aftermath.

The fateful postcard

To be precise, the summer of 1951. Ludvik Jahn is one of the generation of young students caught up in the idealism generated by the Communist Party’s seizure of power and he is still a staunch communist, but also an intellectual and wit and joker. In his circle of friends is a particularly po-faced and unimaginative woman student named Marketa. She never gets any of their gags or references, which tempts her friends to spin all kinds of jokes on her, for example the time they were all down the pub and Ludvik invents the notion that the hills of Bohemia are home to a shy and elusive race of trolls – which Marketa accepts with open mouth and wide eyes.

So when she goes away to summer labour duty, helping with the harvest, as all young zealous communists do, and when she sends him a series of letters each more po-faced and staunchly patriotic and communist than the last, Ludvik decides to pull her leg by scribbling a quick postcard with the sentiments most guaranteed to shock her, namely:

Optimism is the opium of mankind!
A healthy spirit stinks of stupidity!
Long live Trotsky!

The card is intercepted on the way to Marketa’s camp. The authorities call her in for questioning. Then Ludvik is called into a kangaroo court where he slowly realises that his quick jeu d’esprit is being interpreted in the most sinister way possible. How long have you been an agent for enemy powers, his interrogators ask him. With horror he realises that merely making a joke, of any kind, is – to these people – an insult to the 100% earnest, patriotic, communist fervour required from the entire citizenry.

Things reach a peak of horror when he is hauled before a roomful of his peers at the university, fellow students and communist party members. Ludvik is briefly heartened when he learns the chair is to be his good friend and fellow wit Zemanek. However, Zemanek rises and gives a thrilling and brilliantly damning indictment of Ludvik, kicking off by quoting the prison diaries of a young communist, Julius Fucik, who was arrested, tortured and executed by the Nazis but who died knowing he gave his life for a noble cause. Having let that sink in among the tearful audience, Zemanek then comes to another text, and reads out Ludvik’s postcard. At which point Ludvik realises he is lost. When it comes to a vote, 100% of the arms of his friends and colleagues stretch up to expel him from the university and from the communist party.

In those heady revolutionary times, Kundera explains, it was thought that human beings had a fixed inner essence and that that essence was either for the Party and with the Party, or it was against. Black or white. And a single slip, a chance remark, in a conversation or article or meeting – might suddenly reveal the terrible fact that you were not for the Party. And just that one slip revealed to all the party zealots, to the police and to all society who you really were. Just one slip of the tongue, and you were categorised and condemned for life as an enemy of the people. You would be fired from your job, unable to get a new one, all decent respectable people would shun you.

(Reading Kundera’s bitter and extended explanation of how the young, clever, intellectual communist zealots of this day took a fierce delight in policing everyone’s speech and writing, and pouncing on the slightest example of unrevolutionary sentiments… the reader can’t help reflecting that this is exactly the fierce, young university student zeal which drives modern political correctness.)

In the mining camp

It was only the fact that Ludvik was a student that had exempted him from military service. Now he’s kicked out of university, he is immediately conscripted straight into the army and, because of his misdemeanour, into a punishment battalion which works in the coal mines.

There follows a long passage describing the grim lives of the coal miners and the barbed-wire-encircled barracks they live in. Slowly Ludvik gets to know the other criminals and ‘social deviants’. I like prison camp memoirs (the twentieth century was, after all, very rich in them; the prison camp memoir is a major twentieth century genre) and I found this extended section powerful and moving. For the first time Ludvik is forced to pay attention to the lives and fates of people outside himself, and to sympathise with their plights.

Once a month they all get a pass to go into town on a Saturday night and spend the money they’ve earned in the mine, getting pissed and shagging the local prostitutes. Ludvik describes this in some detail.

But then he also describes meeting a shy girl who is different from the rest and who he conceives something resembling true love for, a young woman named Lucie Sebetka. He can only meet her once a month, and comes to project all his sensitivity and soulfulness onto her, turning her into an image of frail purity.

But Ludvik is a man – and a man in a Milan Kundera novel – so sex is ever-present in his mind and it isn’t long before he wants to – needs to – possess her, and make her his.

This sequence is written very convincingly, the way Ludvik’s thoughts slowly morph from worshiping Lucie’s purity to needing to possess it. Thus, on several successive dates – spread months apart – he tries to have sex with her, despite her refusing, clenching her legs together, pushing him off, and bursting into tears.

Maybe it’s because I’m so much older than Ludvik (he is, after all, only 20 at the time) or because I’ve read so many hundreds of accounts of #metoo-type rapes and assaults – but I quickly suspected that she had been abused earlier in her life and this explains her paradoxical behaviour: she loves Ludvik, she brings him flowers, she visits the camp and says hello to him through the wire mesh – in every way she is devoted to him; and yet on the two occasions where he manages to engineer meetings (at some risk – for the second one he manages to escape through a hole in the wire, and devise an elaborate set of arrangements whereby he borrows the bedroom of a civilian miner he’s befriended down the mines for just one evening) she is OK kissing, and sort of OK taking her clothes off but… absolutely and completely refuses to go any further, driving Ludvik into paroxysms of frustration, and then into a fiery rage.

He eventually shouts at her to get out and throws her clothes at her. She dresses and leaves in tearful silence. Ludvik waits an appropriate period of time, goes back downstairs to find the friendly miner has got a few mates round and they’re all a bit drunk, so he regales them with an entirely fictional account of what wonderful championship sex he’s just had with his girlfriend, before riskily sneaking back into the camp, and going to bed in his miserable bunk.

He never sees Lucie again – on his next furlough he discovers she’s simply left the dormitory she was sharing in with two other girls and left no forwarding address – but he never stops being haunted by her memory.

His mother dies while he’s doing his time and when it’s finally over, he is so heartlost and forlorn, that he signs up for another three years hard labour. The loss of Lucie – the stupid bungling lust of that one night – plunges him into years of ‘hopelessness and emptiness’ (p.104).

The Revenge

It is fifteen years later. We are in the mind of plump, middle-aged Helena. She is fed up with her husband Pavel and his philandering. She hates the petty bickering at work – she works in a government radio station. She resents all the fuss they made when she got some little hussy who she discovered was having an affair with a married man, sacked from her job. All her staff rounded on her, some even muttering ‘hypocrite’. But what do they know about all the sacrifices she’s made for the Party? And for her country? And for Truth and Justice?

OK, she herself flirts with younger men but that is completely different. And anyway, now she has met the love of her life, a wonderful heartfelt passionate man named Ludvik. And he has invited her for a trip out of Prague, to a town in the country where there is an annual folk festival. She has combined business with pleasure, as she’ll cover the festival for her radio station (accompanied by a loyal young puppy of a sound engineer named Jindra) but her real motivation for going is that Ludvik has told her he can’t contain his passion any more and must have her. She is thrilled to her fingertips. She has brought her best underwear.

And so she proceeds to check into the hotel in this rural town and then to meet Ludvik. It is only half way through this passage, and half way through the book (on page 151) that we casually learn that her last name is Zemanek. When I read that sentence I burst out laughing and everyone on the tube carriage looked at me. Yes, Zemanek, the name of Ludvik’s smooth-talking friend who was the first to betray him and led the meeting which had him expelled from university and the party, who ruined his life.

Now Ludvik is taking his revenge. Having eventually returned to Prague and found white collar work he is suited for, he one day meets Helena who comes to interview him for her radio programme and her surname makes him perk up. He does background checks and establishes she is the wife of his persecutor and contrives for them to have another meeting, at which he uses all his wiles to seduce her. The seduction proceeds apace and is now due to reach its climax in his home town, the setting of the annual folk festival.

And the heart of the novel (arguably) is this grand, staged, ceremonial act of sexual intercourse between the aggrieved Ludvik and his blissfully ignorant, plump adorer, Helena. It is described in great detail and is, I suppose, very erotic.

The two standout features of Ludvik’s technique are 1. He insists she strip naked for him, until she is standing there before him, starkers – without pulling the curtains or turning off the light. She is initially reluctant but eventually strips, and this has the psychological effect of making her truly really completely accept the reality of the situation. Rather than hiding under a blanket and letting something unspeakable happen to her, she is made completely complicit, willing and responsible for the act of sex.

Number 2 is that half way through coitus, Ludvik gets carried away and slaps Helena and, to his and her amazement, she likes it, it makes her howl louder, so he slaps her again, and soon he is slapping her face at will, then turns her over and spanks her big wobbly bum, while she howls and groans in ecstasy.

All very erotic, and written with an intense erotic charge, but – as I’ve emphasised above – also all wildly absurd. Because the forced stripping and the beating unleashes in Helena a deeper level of erotic experience than she could ever have imagined possible, with the result that her love and adoration of Ludvik goes from high on a normal counter, to off the scale, into slavish, super-deotional Shades of Grey territory.

BUT, as the process unfolded, Ludvik found himself more and more overcome with disgust and hatred. With the result that, once they are totally spent, Helena can’t keep her arms off him, is all over him, kisses him all over his body, while Ludvik, thoroughly repulsed and now ashamed of himself, shrinks like a starfish at her touch, and only wants to get dressed and flee.

So the idea of the joke has multiple levels. It refers to:

  1. the original joke postcard that Ludvik sent
  2. and this elaborate ploy he sets up to ravish, ransack and steal from his bitter enemy, everything that he (the enemy) loves (p.171)

However, there is more to come. Namely that Ludvik makes the tactical error of asking Helena to tell him more about her husband. He does this for two reasons a) he wants to hear more about their deep love, so he can savour the idea that he (Ludvik) has ravaged it, b) it will stop Helena pawing and fawning all over him.

What he hadn’t at all anticipated was that Helena proceeds to tell him that her marriage to Zemanek is over. Zemanek doesn’t like her. He has been having affairs. They have ceased living as man and wife. True they share the same house, but they have completely separate lives.

In a flash Ludvik’s entire plan turns to ashes, crashes to the ground. It has all been for nothing. Worse, Helena now enthusiastically tells Ludvik that now she can announce to Zemanek that she has a lover of her own, and he can go to hell with all his pretty dollybirds because she, Helena, has found the greatest, truest love of her life.

Appalled, Ludvik finally manages to make his excuses, plead another appointment and leave.

Jaroslav and the Ride of the King

The book is so long and rich and complex because there are several other distinct threads to it. One of these is about Czech folk music. It turns out that the provincial town where this folk festival is taking place is also Ludvik’s home town. As a teenager he played clarinet in the town’s folk ensembles and was deeply imbrued with the folk tradition. He became very good friends with Jaroslav, a big gentle bear of a man, who emerged as a leader of the town’s folk musicians and a one-man embodiment of the tradition.

Jaroslav’s monologue allows Kundera to go into some detail about the Czech folk tradition, what it means, why it is special, and the impact the communist coup had on it. Surprisingly, this was positive. After all the Czechs were forced to copy the Stalinist model of communist culture – and this emphasised nationalist and folk traditions, while pouring scorn on the ‘cosmopolitianism’ of the international Modernist movement, then, a bit later, strongly criticised the new ‘jazz’ music coming in from the decadent West.

The communist government gave money to preserve folk traditions and to fund folk traditions like the one taking place on the fateful weekend when Ludvik and Helena are visiting his home town. Jaroslav is not backward in expressing his contempt for Ludvik, who abandoned all this to go to the big city, who turned his back on the true folk tradition to celebrate a foreign, imported ideology. Once best friends, they haven’t met for many years, and Jaroslav in particular, harbours a deep grudge against his former band member.

Jaroslav describes in some detail the ‘Ride of the King’ which is the centrepiece of the festival, when a young boy is completely costumed and masked to re-enact the legend of the almost solitary ride of an exiled king in the Middle Ages. It is a great honour to be chosen to play the ‘king’ and Jaroslav is thrilled that his own son was selected by the committee to play the king.

Admittedly the ride itself, as witnessed through the eyes of both Jaroslav and Ludvik, is a rather shabby and tawdry affair. The authorities don’t even close off the main street so the characters dressed in bright traditional costumes and riding horses, are continually dodging out of the way of cars, lorries and motor bikes. And the crowds are the smallest they’ve ever been. (At this point you realise this novel is set in the early 1960s, as radio-based rock and roll was just coming in, as the Beatles were first appearing – and the reader can make comparisons between this Czech novel lamenting the decay of traditional folk festivals, and similar books, describing similar sentiments, written in the West.)

Jaroslav puts a brave face on it all, decrying the horrible noisy modern world, insisting on the primacy and integrity of folk music and traditions and still beaming with pride that his son is riding on a horse through their town dressed as the King of the Ride.

Except he isn’t. Later on in the book Jaroslav makes the shattering discovery that his son has bunked off, gone off on a motorbike with a mate to a roadside café to drink and listen to rock’n’roll. And his wife knew all about it and helped cover it up, helped arrange the dressing up of a completely different boy, and then lied to Jaroslav!

No greater betrayal is conceivable. Stunned, the big man stands in their kitchen, while his wife faces their stove, continuing to fuss over the soup she’s making while her husband’s whole world collapses in ashes. Then, one by one he takes every plate on the dresser and hurls them at the floor. Then he smashes up each of the chairs round the table. Then he turns the table over and smashes it down on the pile of broken crockery. While his wife stands trembling at the cooker, crying into their soup. Then he leaves, dazed and confused, wandering through the streets, and beyond, out into the fields, out to the countryside and eventually sits down by the river which flows through the town, the Morava, then lies down, using the violin case he’s brought with him as a pillow. Lies and stares at the clouds in the sky, completely forlorn.

Kostka’s story

Kostka’s story comes toward the end of the novel, but it provides an important centre and touchstone. As you read it you realise that although Ludvik may be the central consciousness, he is powerfully counterbalanced by first Jaroslav and now Kostka.

Kostka was also of Ludvik and Jaroslav’s generation, the 1948 generation. But Kostka was and is a devout Christian. (Christianity, Christian faith and Christian terminology crops up throughout Kundera’s fiction. Readers [correctly] associate him with meditations on politics and communism, but Christian belief is also a substantial theme in his books.)

Kostka’s inflexible religious belief meant that he, too, eventually found it impossible to stay in university, though he differed from Ludvik in voluntarily quitting and being assigned to a state farm as a technical adviser (p.184) where, being highly intelligent and hard working, he was soon devising more effective ways to grow crops. It was then that a rumour spread about a wild woman of the woods, stories circulated about milk pails being mysteriously emptied, food left out to cool disappearing. It wasn’t long before the authorities tracked down the young woman to her shad shabby lair in a disused barn and brought her in for questioning.

It was Lucie, Ludvik’s pure young woman. This is what happened to her after their tragically failed night of sex, after he threw her clothes at her and told her to clear out. She did. She left her job and the dormitory she shared, and travelled across country sleeping rough, and ended up in a rural area, living off berries and food she could steal.

The authorities take pity on her and assign her to the communal farm. This is where she comes under the protection of Kostka. And very slowly we learn how she relaxes and opens up and tells him her story. As I had suspected, she was abused, to be precise as a teenager she hung round with a gang of boys and on one pitiful occasion, they got drunk and gang raped her. Even the quietest, sweetest boy, the one she thought was her special friend. He was the most brutal, to show off to his mates that he was a real man.

That is more than enough explanation of why she couldn’t give herself to Ludvik. It was precisely because what she needed wasn’t sex, but protection. In her mind, she was forcing Ludvik to conform to the role of Lover and Protector. Having sex destroyed that image which is why she couldn’t do it (over and above the sheer terror the act revived in her mind). And of course, in his mind she was pure and virginal, and he had worked himself up into a young man’s romantic state where he thought of her as especially his, and the act of love as a sacred blessing on the altar of her unsullied beauty.

So both were acting under pitiful delusions about the other.

In fact, we had been briefly introduced to Kostka right at the start of the novel because when he arrives back in his home town for the festival and to deflower Helena, Ludvik looks up one of the few friends he can remember in the place, Kostka, who is now an eminent doctor at the local hospital. In an amiable but distant way, Kostka agrees to loan Ludvik his apartment for an afternoon (for the fatal act of sex). It is only later, when they meet up that evening, that they share a drink and Kostka ends up telling him about his life.

Now Kostka remembers another meeting, by chance, on a train, in 1956. Kostka had been forced to quit the collective farm because of political machinations and had ended up becoming a labourer. First they shared the irony that two young men, both so idealistic about their beliefs, had both been dumped on from a great height by… by… by what? By ‘History’ is the best they can come up with. By the impersonal forces of society working to a logic nobody really understands, certainly nobody can control. In fact Ludvik was so incensed by the unfairness of Kostka’s fate that he moved heaven and earth and used all his old contacts, to get Kostka appointed to the hospital where he still works.

This is why Ludvik looks Kostka up when he arrives back in his hometown in the book’s ‘present’. This is why Kostka agrees to lend him his flat for the deflowering of Helena. And this is why, later that night, when the two old friends share a drink, Kostka tells Ludvik about Lucie, without realising he knew her: about the gang rape, the flight. How she found one man she could trust, a miner in a god-forsaken mining town. But how he, too, turned out to be just like all the rest. How she had turned up the collective farm all those years ago, how Kostka took her under his wing and how, despite himself, he too took advantage of her and began a sexual relationship with her – about which he now, older and wiser, feels cripplingly guilty.

Soon after this revelation, Kostka’s section ends and we are returned to the mind of Ludvik, in the present, walking back from Kostka’s flat late at night, and absolutely reeling. What? Everything he ever believed about Lucie, both during their ill-fated affair and for fifteen years since – turns out to be utterly, completely wrong (p.210).

Back to Helena

But there are still more acts to go in this pitiful black farce. For to Helena’s own surprise no other than her suave philandering husband, Pavel Zemanek, turns up for the festival. He is now a super-smooth and successful university lecturer, adored by his students for his fashionably anti-establishment (i.e. anti-communist) views. And he’s brought his latest student lover along, a long-legged beauty – Miss Broz – perfectly suited to Pavel’s stylish sports car.

Helena takes advantage of her recent mad, passionate coupling with Ludvik, to tell Zemanek that she’s met the love of her life, that she doesn’t need him any more, and generally take a superior position. She goes so far as telling Zemanek her marvellous lover’s name, Ludvik Jahn, and is puzzled when he bursts out laughing. Oh they’re old friends, he explains.

Helena recounts this all to Ludvik when they meet up the next morning, and it is all Ludvik can do to conceal his dismay. Just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse. And then a few hours later, in the throng of the bloody festival, in among the crowds packing the streets to watch the Ride of the bloody King, suddenly Zemanek emerges from the crowd, accompanied by his long-legged dollybird and Helena is introducing the two enemies, face to face for the first time in 15 years.

And, of course, whereas Ludvik is strangled by an inexpressible combination of rage and hatred, Zemanek is unbearably suave and cool, well dressed, well-heeled, hair well-coiffed, gorgeous student on his arm – unbearable! And doubly unbearable because he realises his revenge on Zemanek has not only failed, but epically, massively failed. Not only did he not ravish and desecrate the body of Zemanek’s beloved wife – because Zemanek doesn’t give a damn who his wife sleeps with – but Helena falling so deeply and publicly in love with him (Ludvik) has done Zemanek a big favour. For years Helena has been a burden round his neck – now at a stroke Ludvik has done him the favour of removing that burden!

Farce is laid over farce, bitter black joke on top of bitter black joke.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, yet another layer is added to the cake of humiliation – because as Ludvik is forced to swallow his rage and join in the polite chit-chat going on between Helena and Zemanek and Miss Broz, he realises something from the latter’s talk. As she witters on praising Zemanek for standing up to the authorities and bravely speaking out about this or that issue and generally becoming a hero to his students, Ludvik is subject to a really shattering revelation: the past doesn’t matter any more.

As she talks on Ludvik realises that, for her and her generation, all that stuff about 1948 and purges and executions and party squabbles and ideological arguments: that’s all ancient history – ‘bizarre experiences from a dark and distant age’ (p.232) which is just of no interest to her and her generation, who want to party and have fun.

Not only has Ludvik failed utterly to wreak his revenge on his old antagonist – but the entire world which gave meaning to their antagonism, and therefore to his act of revenge, has ceased to exist. He has been hanging onto a past which doesn’t exist anymore. It sinks in that the entire psychological, intellectual and emotional framework which has dominated his life for fifteen years… has evaporated in a puff of smoke. No one cares. No one is interested. It doesn’t matter.

Alone again with Helena, Ludvik lets rip. He tells her he hates her. He tells her he only seduced and made love to her to get his own back on her husband, the man who sold him down the river when they were students. He says she repulses him.

At first she refuses to accept it – she has just thrown away her entire life with Zemanek, the security of their house and marriage – for Ludvik and here he is spitting in her face. Eventually she wanders off, dazed, back to the village hall where she and her sound engineer, Jindra, have set up base to make their radio documentary. In a dazed voice, she says she has a headache and the engineer (still virtually a schoolboy, who has a puppy crush on Helena) says he has some headache tablets in her bag. She sends him out for a drink and then, rummaging in his bag, comes across several bottles full of headache pills. She takes two and then looks at herself in the mirror, at her fact tear-stained face, contemplating the complete and utter humiliation she has just undergone and the shattering of her entire life.

And, as she hears Jindra returning with a bottle from a nearby tavern, she hastily swallows down the entire contents of not one but all the bottles in the engineer’s bag. She emerges back into the hall, thanks him for the drink and writes a note. It is a suicide note addressed to Ludvik. She pops it in an envelope and scribbles Ludvik’s name on it and asks Jindra to track Ludvik down and deliver it.

Now, Jindra has got wind of Helena and Ludvik’s affair and was present when Zemanek and his student were introduced to them, so he knows Ludvik by sight. Reluctantly he goes off with the letter. The observant reader might notice that the story commences with a missive – a postcard – and is ending with another, though I can’t quite figure out the meaning of this – something about misunderstood messages.

Jindra fairly quickly finds Ludvik in the beer garden of the most popular pub in town. He grudgingly hands over the letter. Now a message from an angry upset Helena is about the last thing Ludvik wants to have to deal with and so, to delay matters, he invites Jindra to join him in a drink. He calls the waiter. He orders. The drinks arrive. They drink. They toast. The letter sits on the table unopened. I really enjoyed this little sequence.

Eventually and very reluctantly Ludvik opens the envelope and reads the message. He leaps out of his chair and demands to know where Helena is now. The engineer describes the village hall they’ve borrowed and Ludvik sets out at a run, zigzagging through the crowds and avoiding the traffic.

He makes it to the hall, bursts in and it is empty. Down into the cellar he goes, amid the cobwebs and detritus, yelling Helena’s name. No reply. They check every room on the ground floor, then realise there’s an attic, and find a ladder and go up there, Ludvik convinced at any moment he’ll see a mute body dangling from a rope. But no Helena – so another frenzied search reveals a door into a back garden, and they burst out into this quickly realising there is no body prone in the grass or hanging from the trees.

But there is a shed. Ludvik bounds over to it and beats on the door, which is locked. ‘Go away’ they hear Helena’s anguished voice, and Ludvik needs no bidding to kick open the door, smashing its flimsy lock to reveal…

Helena squatting on a toilet in agony, angrily begging him to close the door. Those headache pills? They weren’t headache pills. The puppyish engineer now sheepishly admits to both of them that he often gets constipated and so keeps a supply of laxatives ready to hand. Only he’s embarrassed about people seeing them so he keeps them in old headache pill bottles.

Ludvik steps back, surveys the situation and closes the door on Helena’s humiliation and stands lost, dazed, staggered. What… What is life about? What is the point? Could he be any more of an ironic plaything of Fate?

He walks away from the outside loo, from Helena and Jindra, back through the church hall, out into the hectic streets, along busy roads, across town to the outskirts, where the houses peter out, and on into fields, farmland, lanes and hedgerows and trees. Eventually he finds himself walking along beside the river Morava, and then makes out a figure lying down beside it. As he comes closer he is astonished to see it is his old friend and fellow musician, Jaroslav. He greets him and asks if he can sit down beside him.

And so the two lost men, their lives and their illusions in tatters, sit out in the empty countryside contemplating the absurd meaningless of existence…

Summary

The Joke is the longest of Kundera’s books, and also the most dense. The plot is intricate, ranging back and forth over the fifteen-year period and some of these periods are described in great detail, for example the long passage describing life in the miners’ punishment camp. As his career progressed, Kundera was to compress passages like this, making them ever shorter and punchier.

The Joke also feels dense because it includes large sections packed with very intellectual meditations – about music, folk music and Christian belief, as well as politics, communism, and human life considered from all kinds of angles. Kundera doesn’t hesitate to lard almost every action in the book with a philosophical commentary, some of which lift off from the text entirely to become stand-alone digressions in their own right.

And if it is a traditional form of literary criticism to describe the patterns in a novel’s narrative, particularly in terms of the growth and development of its characters – then you could easily do the same and analyse the patterns in Kundera’s deployment of ideas which, like the characters, seem plausible enough when you first meet them but then, slowly, over the course of the book’s intricate windings, themselves are undermined and contradicted. To put it another way – in a Kundera novel, the ideas have as many adventures as the ‘characters’.

It’s true there are a number of sequences acts of copulation and, more to the point, the male characters in particular, obsess about sex almost continually – which can, if you’re not careful, become very tiresome. But, as I hope I’ve shown, this focus on the private act of sex itself is continually opening up into more philosophical and psychological speculations about human nature. It’s as if sex, the sex act, is itself merely a stage on which much deeper philosophical and fictional questions can be raised and explored. There may be a fair amount of sex in the book, but if you look closely, you’ll see that hardly any of it is happy and fulfilling; most of it is fraught and tragic. Or tragi-comic.

And fundamentally, beneath the meditations on History and Communist power, beneath the stories of the individual characters and their worries and experiences and plans, and beneath the erotic layer of lust and sex which lards much of the book – at bottom the message, for me, is one about the complete Absurdity of human existence.

For me the message is that: Humans are the meaning-making animal, condemned to waste vast amounts of energy trying to find meaning and purpose in the grand narrative of their lives as much as in the slightest event or accident which occurs to them… But at the same time – because we are limited to our own very narrow points of view and relatively tiny number of lived experiences – our interpretations of the world and other people are more often than not howlingly inaccurate and ridiculously self-centred.

It is this mismatch between the will to understand, and the completely incomprehensible reality of the world, which is the Absurdity of the Human Condition. It’s all a big Joke.

The plot of The Joke is itself a joke. And not only its plot. Its ‘philosophy’ as well: man, caught in the trap of a joke, suffers a personal catastrophe which, when seen from without, is ludicrous. His tragedy lies in the fact that the joke has deprived him of the right to tragedy. (Introduction)

Because what if the ‘aberrations’ and ‘mistakes’ and miscarriages of justice aren’t aberrations from History at all? What if the aberrations and mistakes and miscalculations, which people are continually dismissing from their thoughts, are the norm? What if everything, if all human endeavour and effort, is one vast continual ongoing misunderstanding, just one big stupid joke? (p.240)

Most people willingly deceive themselves with a doubly false faith: they believe in eternal memory (of men, things, deed, people) and in the rectification (of deeds, errors, sins, injustice.) Both are sham. The truth lies at the opposite end of the scale: everything will be forgotten and nothing will be rectified. (p.245)

Another view

A friend of mine is mad about Kundera. She says I miss the point, or miss her point, about him.

Reading Kundera showed her that even the most grim and sordid events – the kind she was familiar with from her unbookish, working-class upbringing – can be redeemed by thought and imagination. Reading Kundera transported her into a world where even the most crude and barbaric behaviour was translated into intellectualism, into dazzling insights and memorable formulations. The act of reading Kundera was in itself an escape into the company of a highly educated, urbane, confident, man of the world, who could deploy ideas and quotes from the great names of European literature with a light touch, to bring out hitherto unsuspected aspects of even the most mundane situations (two reluctant lovers groping in a shabby bedroom). He sprinkled a magic dust of insights and ideas over everything, making her realise that every minute of her day was just as capable of being analysed, just as susceptible to witty insights and psychological revelations. Reading him made her own life feel full of imaginative promise and intellectual excitement.

And she was dazzled by the way the reader feels they know the characters via their interiority, going straight to the heart of their affairs and dilemmas. She loves the way Kundera plunges you straight into their psychological depths and complexities. It doesn’t matter at all that they remain undescribed physical shadows, in fact it’s a big plus, it helps you focus all the more on their minds and characters.

As a woman she didn’t feel at all patronised by the focus on sex-driven male characters. After all, she grew up in a world of sex-driven men. What riveted her thirty years ago, when she first read Kundera’s novels, and has stayed with her ever since, was the revelation that even the most humdrum moments of the most humdrum lives can be transformed by the imagination and intellect into wonderful luminous ideas. This opened doors into a whole new way of thinking and helped inspire her go to university, and beyond.

It’s hard to think of a more moving and profound tribute to an author, which is why I include it here.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

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