The Omnicient Narrator in "The Hitchhiking Game" by Milan Kundera
This article is part of a series exploring the theme of alienation within contemporary literature. The series focuses not only on the theme itself, but on the way that the author uses perspective, or point of view, to explore, control, and mediate the sense of disconnect at work. To read more about alienation in recent fiction in general, please visit:
Introduction to The HItchhiking Game
Milan Kundera's short story focuses on a young couple who is going on a weekend vacation. The couple appears to be happy, but the reader quickly becomes aware that each one has a somewhat unrealistic expectation of the other.
When the two stop for a bathroom break, they begin an impromptu role-playing game. As the young man pulls the car up to get his girlfriend, she sticks out her thumb as if she is hitchhiking. When she gets in, the two continue the game, pretending to be strangers. They continue the game throughout the car ride, and after they arrive at a hotel. The two get carried away in their new roles but unforeseen effects develop as a result.
Why the Game?
In “The Hitchhiking Game,” the two young people are products of an increasingly bureaucratized modern society. The world that the young people inhabit is dominated by their jobs. Even on vacation, during which the game takes place, the young man must go through his office to secure a hotel, “its omnipresent brain thus did not cease knowing about him even for an instant.”
As a result, the two are alienated from their sense of self, they function more as cogs in the machine of a larger, soul-swallowing world of modernity. The fact that the working lives of the young couple, and by extension the society and world around them, even perhaps the political realm, has so “infiltrated…private life” creates an almost compulsory desire to escape. Without some form of abdication, the young man fears that “the strait road would overcome him-a road along which he was being pursued, where he was visible to everyone, and from which he could not turn aside.”
The hitchhiking game is a means with which to deviate from that road into the unknown, a game in which both players shed their personalities to take on the role of stranger to the other, thus shedding the aspect of self that is at once tied to their surroundings, and to each one’s consciousness as their persona or sense of self.
Relationship Between the Narrator and the Characters
Kundera uses a point of view that Janet Burroway considers somewhat “outdated” in contemporary literature, the omniscient narrator. “This voice obviously involves a lot of telling,” writes Burroway, and indeed, this is just what Kundera does.
The narrator repeatedly makes his presence visible: “Fortunately women have the miraculous ability to change the meaning of their actions after the event. Using this ability, she decided that she had repulsed him not out of anger but so that she could go on with the game…” The narrator, much like those of 19th century fiction, provides his own comments and opinions, even to the point of speaking directly to the reader.
The narrator retains the ability to relate the thoughts and feelings of both characters. He inhabits both the conscious and unconscious minds of the young couple, yet at the same time treats each one rather objectively. They are not given names, simply referred to as “the young man” and “the girl.” In this the two are depersonalized, just as they are engaged in their own process of abandoning their own personalities in favor of the unknown.
In the ending scene, the girl cries out “I am me, I am me…” While the boy recognizes that the girls assertion is “the unknown defined in terms of the same unknown quantity,” they are alienated both from themselves and from one another.
“Fiction was suddenly making an assault upon real life,” writes Kundera. Here the fiction of the hitchhiking game itself, the playing at stranger, has made an intrusion into the lives of the characters as they begin to recognize their own alienation. However, fiction is also intruding into "real" real life in terms of the writing, and the relationship to the reader.
Story Found In:
The Narrator and the Reader
Kundera uses the removed and distant omniscient point of view to create distance between reader and character. Just as the couple cannot know themselves and each other, the reader cannot know them either.
The reader may know things about them, they may perhaps even be more aware of certain things than the characters are themselves, for example the fact that “The young man’s sarcastic reserve suited the girl very well- it freed her from herself…. The girl could forget herself and give herself up to her role,” yet they cannot really know the characters in the sense of what Burroway terms a “psychic and psychological” closeness.
Kundera’s narrator spells out the context of the game for the reader in such a way that all of this strangeness, all of this alienation, is compensated by the fact that we have at least made some clever observations on the whole dynamic.
The fact that the narrator must do so much of the work for the reader is tolerable because what is spelled out is something unique to the mind of Kundera; while we are not necessarily drawn into the complicated and strange world of the hitchhikers, we are brought into a narrative that is complex and interesting enough to maintain an inward pull into the story.
More on Perspective and Alienation in Recent Fiction
- Don DeLillo's White Noise: The Apocolyptic Novel and...
- The Omnicient Narrator in Ann Patchett's Bel Canto: Exploring Human Connection in the Midst of Isola
- Toni Morrison's Beloved: Exploring Trauma, Alienatio...
Discusses how Toni Morrison uses point of view to address the complexities of alienation and madness in the novel Beloved.
- Joan Didion's Play It as It Lays: Apathy, Alienation...
Focuses on Joan Didion's Play It as It Lays art of a series analyzing the use of point of view to further and explore themes of alienaion in contemporary fiction.
Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. 2nd Ed. New York: Penguin Academics, 2007. Print.
Kundera, Milan. "The Hitchhiking Game." Laughable Loves. New York: Penguin Books, 1974. Print.