Hašek's Good Soldier Švejk as a Picaresque Novel
established in these earlier works, and which shares that characteristic viewpoint called "picaresque," which we will try to describe more closely in the following pages.7
Though it is unlikely that he had any one literary model in mind while writing Svejk, it seems likely that Hasek, growing up in a Prague dominated by German culture, may have read the great German picaresque novel, Grimmelshausen's Der abenteuerliche Simplicissimus. This possibility, though not vital to my argument, is nevertheless interesting, for Simplicissimus is the picaresque novel which shows the most striking parallels to Svejk.8Most obviously, both works present a world in chaos through the central image of a war which controls the action and seems to dominate every aspect of the life portrayed in both works. In either case, the war is presented as a fact of life, almost a force of nature, which is senseless and never subject to human justification or control. Again, both picaros are drafted by one side in the conflict and retain a nominal loyalty to that side, but neither of them ever identifies seriously with the objectives of his army. Svejk, of course, professes a loyalty which in its extreme enthusiasm becomes a parody of itself, but in any event his actions seem to belie his words. Their ultimate motivations are either unrelated to or a reaction against the war: self-advancement for Simplicius, self-preservation (in the fullest sense of the word) for Svejk. There is, however, a further parallel between the two works. In both, the picaro, while playing the part of an unassuming fool, succeeds in making fools out of those who consider themselves his superiors, and in the process demonstrates a kind of wisdom which, paradoxically, is the result of his fool's perspective.
Thus we can see some clear similarities between Svejk and at least one work of the picaresque "canon." But now let us proceed to a closer examination of the novel in an effort to see how closely it conforms to various norms of the picaresque established by critics. To begin with the most obvious points, the book is centered on a character who seems totally devoid of heroic or exceptional qualities, is a member of the lower classes, has no secure position in society, and is forced to make his own way through a world which is hostile or indifferent to him. Furthermore, the novel as a whole is characterized by the episodic plot always associated with the picaresque, in which incidents follow each other usually without any causal relation.
These basic elements of character and plot are generally agreed to be essential features of the picaresque novel. If we probe a little further, we find that Svejk conforms to other, more specific features which have been considered characteristically picaresque. Stuart Miller, in his book The Picaresque Novel, has made perhaps the most systematic and detailed attempt to define those features which distinguish the genre, and it may be useful to consider some of his criteria here. In a chapter