Analysis of Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier

The most famous novel by the Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek (1883–1923), The Good Soldier Schweik and His Fortunes in the World War was published in sections from 1921 until the author’s death in 1923. The book is actually a third of Hašek’s stories about Josef Schweik, a character who has been the subject of much debate. Although frequently seen as a patriotic but blundering soldier, Schweik is seen by many critics as simply a shrewd malingerer. A series of five stories was published in Caricatures in 1911 and The Good Soldier Schweik in Russian Captivity was written in 1917. However, it is the author’s post–World War I novel The Good Soldier Schweik and His Fortunes in the World War that gained Hašek a place in literary history.

The book is usually accompanied by Josef Lada’s illustrations, which help the reader to see Schweik as an amiable and simpleminded hero. However, such an analysis ignores Schweik’s clever attempts to avoid active duty and his keen insight into the army’s operations. Schweik always has a story or lie at the ready; artifice and subterfuge are used to escape trouble and outwit his military superiors, as seen in his shrewd manipulation of the guards in chapter 10 of the novel. Although Schweik is quick to identify himself as feebleminded, the majority of his actions go against this claim. This can perhaps be traced back to Hašek’s statement to a friend: “In this world, you can only be free if you’re an idiot.” Although Schweik is obviously bright and cunning, he seems to hide behind a veneer of idiocy to excuse his hidden disapproval of the war effort.

The novel is subversive in many ways, reflecting Hašek’s own rejection of authority. The story begins by downplaying the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, Bosnia, igniting World War I. The author’s treatment of the assassination sets the stage for a narrative that presents an unflattering portrayal of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Although Schweik claims to regret the act that spawned such military devastation, his statements and actions indicate otherwise, particularly when he visits a local bar and engages in a humorous discussion of the murder of Archduke Ferdinand.

The episode at the bar sets up the story by leading to Schweik’s first arrest. Bretschneider’s interrogation of Schweik and Palivec, with his underhanded tactics, reflects what many saw as an increasingly authoritarian government. The arrest of the innocent on framed-up charges was a reality of the war years, although they are better known in Soviet Russia and through such dystopian texts as George Orwell’s futuristic novel 1984. Schweik is frequently suspected of subversion against his country, leading to his frequent confrontations with the police and his superior officers.

It is not surprising that Hašek would make light of World War I in this novel. As a Czech, he had more sympathy for the Slavic opponents in Russia and Serbia than the German elites in Bohemia. If Schweik is meant to represent Hašek, it follows that the soldier’s actions, though seemingly well-intentioned, often result in sabotaging his own regiment. Hašek’s description of the Austro-Hungarian officers contributes to the negative portrayal of the war efforts of the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, their allies in World War I).

Many of Schweik’s unfortunate experiences are borrowed from Hašek’s own life, including the author’s trouble with the police, employment, wartime insubordination, and capture by Russian soldiers. However, Hašek’s personality is also reflected by the portrayal of Marek, a newly enlisted volunteer. Due to his contempt for authority, Marek spends the war in military prison for insubordination and minor offenses in his attempt to avoid combat.

Hašek’s novel can be read as a surrealist text through its conflation of life and art. Trivial anecdotes are given great prominence by Schweik, who has two or more such stories or explanations for every occasion and situation. Although Hašek was not part of the surrealist movement, he frustrates readers’ expectations by not describing a single battle in his war novel. This, combined with his emphasis on everyday people, makes his work similar to such surrealist texts as André Breton’s Nadja.

Hašek’s novel was released one volume at a time; however, he died before he could complete Schweik’s story. Several authors have attempted to finish the novel, but none have matched Hašek’s writing abilities. The best-known ending comes from Karel Vanâk, but he takes several liberties with Schweik’s personality, leading most critics to reject his efforts. The novel is almost always published in its incomplete form.

Due to public anger over Hašek’s connection with Russian Bolshevism and doubt as to his true concern for Czech nationalism, the novel was initially poorly received in 1923. Society was insufficient distanced from World War I to properly appreciate a humorous novel about the recent horror. Within a decade, however, some critics were praising The Good Soldier Schweik as one of the 20th century’s greatest works. It has since been translated into dozens of languages and is one of the best-known novels inspired by World War I.

Frynta, Emanuel. Hasek: The Creator of Schweik. Translated by Jean Layton and George Theiner. Prague: Artia, 1965.
Parrott, Cecil. The Bad Bohemian: The Life of Jaroslav Hasek, Creator of “The Good Soldier Svejk.” London: Bodley Head, 1978.
———. Jaroslav Hasek: A Study of “Svejk” and the Short Stories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis

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