Analysis of Karel Capek’s Novels

Karel Capek (9 January 1890 – 25 December 1938) was a philosophical writer par excellence regardless of the genre that he employed in a given work, but the form of long fiction in particular afforded him the amplitude to express complicated philosophical ideas. Thus, his greatest achievement is the trilogy consisting of Hordubal, Meteor, and An Ordinary Life. These three novels preserve the fruit of Capek’s life’s work: the searching and finding of his many short stories, plays, and newspaper columns, as well as his lifelong preoccupation with the philosophy of pragmatism and relativism.


While the trilogy is a complex and at the same time harmonious statement of Capek’s philosophy, his last novel, The Cheat, though shorter than either of the three novels of the trilogy, is important for representing a sharp and shocking departure from the trilogy’s philosophy. It represents a further development of Capek’s philosophical search.


Hordubal is based on a newspaper story of a crime that took place in the most backward region of prewar Czechoslovakia, the Transcarpathian Ukraine. Juraj Hordubal, an unsophisticated but very sensitive and even saintly peasant, returns from the United States, where he worked and made some money, to his wife Polana and daughter Hafia. He is unaware that in his absence, Polana has fallen in love with Stefan Manya, a Hungarian hired hand. To disguise this affair, Polana forces Manya to become engaged to the eleven-year-old Hafia. When this ruse does not work, the lovers kill Hordubal with a long needle. An investigation uncovers the crime and identifies the criminals, who are caught and punished.

Appropriating the bare facts of the newspaper report with minimal modifications, Capek invests this simple tale of passion with philosophical depth, first by making Hordubal a rather sensitive man who is aware of the changed circumstances upon his return home. The reader is painfully aware of this when the author lets the reader follow Hordubal’s thoughts in beautifully stylized, lyric passages of almost saintly insight and renunciation of violence, leading to the acceptance of his death. The tension develops on several levels simultaneously.

The first level is the crime passionnelle, the road that introduces us to the contrasting figures of Hordubal and Manya. A deeper level is attained when the reader perceives the cultural-ethnic contrast: Hordubal, the sedentary agricultural type, is opposed to the Hungarian Manya, the nomadic, violent type. Finally, there is the level on which the tension is between subjective reality, the reality of a given character who sees the world his or her own way, and objective reality. The conclusion, however, undercuts any confident faith in the existence of objective reality. Hordubal is seriously ill when he is murdered, so that a question arises whether the needle of the killer entered his heart before or after his death; if after, there was no murder.

The problem of the interpretation of even simple phenomena is brought to a head in the confrontation between two irreconcilable types of criminal investigations, based on different sets of assumptions and interpretations of events. In the conflict between the young police officer and his seasoned colleague, the deceptively simple case grows more and more complicated. In a plot twist that stresses the evanescent nature of humankind’s certainties, the key evidence, Hordubal’s heart, is lost in transport, condemning those involved in the investigation to eternal incertitude.

The novel shakes the certitudes established in the mystery genre, suggesting that mutually exclusive interpretations are not only possible but also inevitable. More to the point, with the death of Hordubal, the protagonist’s internal monologue ceases; the reader no longer sees Hordubal from inside. What the others think about Hordubal is widely off the mark.



If the truth is relative and hopelessly compromised by the very fact that it is being approached by different people, the second novel of the trilogy reverses the procedure and asks if different people might not discover the truth on the basis of sharing with one another the human condition and thus having very much in common: first the difference, then the commonality. Meteor approaches this further elaboration ofCapek’s philosophical quest in an original manner.

Capek uses three narrators who speculate about the identity of a man fatally wounded in a plane crash and brought to a hospital as “patient X.” The three narrators, including a Sister of Mercy, a clairvoyant, and a writer, try to reconstruct his life and the reason for his flight. The first narrator, the Sister, seesXas a young man who runs away from home unaware of the real meaning of love and responsibility. After some peregrinations, he decides to return home, only to crash and die in the process. The clairvoyant seesXas a talented chemist who discovered important new formulas but lacked the patience to see his experiments through and develop them commercially. When he finds that his experiments were founded on a sound basis, he decides to return and claim the discoveries as his own. The writer sees the patient as a victim of amnesia who falls in love with a Cuban girl but is unable to live without memory. When his suffering triggers the recovery of his past, the man flies home to lay claim to his position.

All three accounts differ from one another in approach and in substance, yet each of them identifies an important facet of the victim and provides an insight into the character of the individual narrator. Capek thus raises the question of self-discovery, the perennial identity problem: What happens whenXand the observer are one and the same person? The third novel of the trilogy, An Ordinary Life, provides the answer.

An Ordinary Life

A retired bureaucrat, a self-confessed “ordinary man,” decides to write the story of his own life. Looking back, he concludes that he lived an ordinary life governed only by habit and chance; it seems repetitious and predictable to him. There are, however, a few incidents that do not fit this summary generalization of his life, and the more he thinks about them, the more fully he understands that right within his ordinary life, there is a multitude of lives: He as a person is not an individuality but a plurality. He, like a microcosm, mirrors the macrocosm of society. Does he have a stable point of view, or does it too change with each different personality as he comes to adopt it? This is not a case of a pathological disorder; the protagonist is a normal official who, before he settled down to his ways, explored radically different lifestyles. Like all people, he bears within him the potential for many selves, never fully realized.

Thus, the tension between subjective and objective reality that animates Hordubal collapses in An Ordinary Life. This third novel of the trilogy proposes that even that which is considered a subjective reality (the only accessible one, since the objective escapes forever) is itself a plurality.

As an experiment, as individual novels, and as a philosophical trilogy, these three novels are brilliant. What is difficult to communicate beyond the pale outlines and philosophical underpinnings of these works is their distinctive tone, their often lyric air. This atmosphere of numinous twilight, so difficult to communicate, bathes the novels in an unearthly light and adds to them a certain air of beauty. It comes as a surprise, then, that Capek’s last work, The Cheat, makes a departure from the finished whole of the trilogy on philosophical grounds.

The Cheat

The trilogy was the culmination of Capek’s work; the relativist philosophy enshrined within it is the summation of findings and beliefs that, for better or worse, animated Capek’s entire oeuvre. The Cheat continues with the insights gained in the trilogy—for example, the method of multiple narration is preserved. The several narratives, nine in all, gradually fill out the picture of the fake artist Foltýn, the would-be composer. These multiple narratives, however, do not yield a relativistic perspective: The individual accounts never contradict one another; rather, they gradually illuminate Foltýn and answer some of the questions that the various narrators have raised. The collective finding is damning, and yet there is something admirable in Foltýn: His obsessive love of art saves him from utter condemnation.

In his attempt to express the impossible, Foltýn is like every artist; every artist has a little Foltýn in him or her. It is only fitting, givenCapek’s sense of balance, that, after providing in his trilogy examples of the power of art to do good, to express the truth, he should point to the capacity of art to profess evil. Thus, he embraced the totality of the world that his suffering enabled him to know intimately.

Other major works
Short fiction: Zárivé hlubiny, 1916 (with Josef Capek); Bozí muka, 1917 (Wayside Crosses, 2002); Krakonošova zahrada, 1918 (with JosefCapek); Trapné povídky, 1921 (Money, and Other Stories, 1929; also known as Painful Tales, 2002); Povídky z druhé kapsy, 1929 (Tales from Two Pockets, 1932); Povídky z jedné kapsy, 1929 (Tales from Two Pockets, 1932); Devatero pohádek, 1931 (Fairy Tales, 1933); Kniha apokryfx, 1946 (Apocryphal Stories, 1949); Cross Roads, 2002 (includes Wayside Crosses and Painful Tales).
Plays: Lásky hra osudná, pb. 1916 (wr. 1910; with Josef Capek); Loupezník, pr., pb. 1920 (The Robber, 1931); R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots, pb. 1920 (English translation, 1923); V0c Makropulos, pb. 1920 (The Macropulos Secret, 1925); Ze mivota hmyzu, pb. 1920 (with Josef Capek; The Insect Play, 1923; also known as And So Infinitam: The Life of the Insects, 1923); Adam Stvoritel, pr., pb. 1927 (with Josef Capek; Adam the Creator, 1929); Bílá nemoc, pr., pb. 1937 (Power and Glory, 1938; also known as The White Plague, 1988); Matka, pr., pb. 1938 (The Mother, 1939). nonfiction: Pragmatismus, 1918; Kritika slov, 1920; O nejblimších vecech, 1920 (Intimate Things, 1935); Musaion, 1920-1921; Italské listy, 1923 (Letters from Italy, 1929); Anglické listy, 1924 (Letters from England, 1925); Hovory s T. G. Masarykem, 1928-1935 (3 volumes; President Masaryk Tells His Story, 1934; also known as Masaryk on Thought and Life, 1938); Zahradníkxv rok, 1929 (The Gardener’s Year, 1931); Výlet do Špan0l, 1930 (Letters from Spain, 1931); Marsyas, 1931 (In Praise of Newspapers: And Other Essays On the Margins of Literature, 1951); O v0cech obecných: Cili, Zóon politikon, 1932; Obrázky z Holandska, 1932 (Letters from Holland, 1933); Dášenka, 1933 (Dashenka, 1940); Cesta na sever, 1936 (Travels in the North, 1939);M0l jsem psa a ko5ku, 1939 (I Had a Dog and a Cat, 1940); Obrázky z domova, 1953; Veci kolemnás, 1954; Poznámky o tvorb0, 1959; Viktor Dyk- S. K. Neumann-bratrí C.: Korespondence z let 1905- 1918, 1962.
Translation: Francouzská poesie nové doby, 1920 (of French poetry).

Bradbrook, Bohuslava R. Karel Capek: In Pursuit of Truth, Tolerance, and Trust. Portland, Oreg.: Sussex Academic Press, 1998.
_______. “Karel Capek’s Contribution to Czech National Literature.” In Czechoslovakia Past and Present, edited by Miloslav Rechcigl. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton, 1968.
Harkins, William E. KarelCapek. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962.
Klima, Ivan. Karel Capek: Life and Work. Translated by Norma Comrada. Highland Park, Mich.: Catbird Press, 2002.
Kussi, Peter, ed. Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Capek Reader. Highland Park, Mich.: Catbird Press, 1990.
Makin, Michael, and Jindrich Toman, eds. On Karel Capek. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1992.
Mann, Erika. “A Last Conversation with Karel Capek.” The Nation, January 14, 1939.
Matuska, Alexander. Karel Capek: An Essay. Translated by Cathryn Alan. London: Allen and Unwin, 1964.
Schubert, Peter Z. The Narratives of Capek and Cexov: A Typological Comparison of the Authors’ World Views. Bethesda, Md.: International Scholars, 1997.
Wellek, René. Essays on Czech Literature. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton, 1963.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis, Philosophy

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: