The Unbearable Lightness of Being | Study Guide

Milan Kundera

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being | Context


The Prague Spring and Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia

Before the country divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, it existed as Czechoslovakia from 1918. The Communist party of Czechoslovakia seized power in 1948 and aligned the country with the Soviet Union, becoming members of the Warsaw Pact in 1955. The Warsaw Pact was a treaty of "Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance" between the Soviet Socialist Republics of the Soviet Union and its allied states in Eastern Europe, also known as the Communist Bloc or Eastern Bloc. By January 5, 1968, Alexander Dubcek became the head of the Communist party of Czechoslovakia. A reformist like Milan Kundera, Dubcek sought to loosen restrictions on certain areas of public life including media and travel. This period of increasing political liberty became known as the Prague Spring. It is particularly noteworthy for its freedom of the press, which allowed citizens to openly engage in discussion about the country's past and ongoing reforms.

Worried these reformist ideas might spread to other Communist Bloc countries and destabilize the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, called for talks with Dubcek. As negotiations proved unsatisfactory to Brezhnev, despite Dubcek's assurances of support for the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union decided on military intervention. On the night of August 20, 1968, armies from the Soviet Union and other Communist Bloc countries invaded Czechoslovakia. During the occupation, citizens took down road signs and gave soldiers incorrect directions to confuse them. Kundera references this resistance several times in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Dubcek was forced to sign the Moscow Protocol, a document that stated he would uphold socialist ideals and limit the freedom of the press. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the character Tereza regards this capitulation as weak and sees her own weak identity within it. After the end of the Prague Spring, the Communist party ministers cracked down on intellectuals who expressed their controversial views during the brief period of press freedom. In the novel, this is Tomas's fate as well, and he is forced to resign his position. Over 300,000 Czech citizens immigrated to other countries as a result of the Soviet invasion and its consequences.

Allusions to Major Philosophers

Kundera's narrator persona presents a number of philosophical arguments from well-known historical thinkers. Central to the novel is the discussion of eternal return, an idea put forth by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). In Nietzsche's view, since a human only lives one life, his life "is a like a shadow," ephemeral and weightless. To have weight, something must reoccur; the more often it reoccurs, the heavier it is, and the more meaning it has. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is Kundera's attempt to create eternal return for his characters and give meaning to their lives and his own.

Other major philosophers referenced include the following:

  • René Descartes (1596–1650): Descartes is a French philosopher known for saying, "I think, therefore I am." He is considered the father of modern philosophy. A rationalist, Descartes employed methodological skepticism to arrive at his conclusions. Kundera criticizes him in Part 7, Chapter 2 for denying that animals have souls.
  • Heraclitus (born c. 540 BCE): Heraclitus was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who is famous for his idea that all things are unified. Kundera expands on this idea in Part 3, Chapter 2 of the novel when discussing Sabina's bowler hat. Although as a motif in her life the hat "gives rise to a new meaning," all its former meanings also resonate "like an echo, like a parade of echoes."
  • Parmenides (born c. 515 BCE): Parmenides was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who founded Eleaticism, a school of ancient philosophy contending nothing exists that contradicts being. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera's narrator refers to Parmenides's thinking as the opposite of Nietzsche's. Where Nietzsche might consider lightness negative and weight positive, Parmenides considers lightness positive and weight negative.


To explicitly question the relationship between fiction and reality, authors may employ metafictional techniques. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera intentionally dispels the illusion inherent to self-contained works of fiction that the events and characters presented are real. Kundera's major departure from the fictional construct is to establish himself (or a crafted persona of himself, never making the distinction clear) as the author and narrator of the work.

Kundera uses a number of metafictional devices:

  • He asserts himself as an intrusive narrator, commenting on the story while he tells it. He often does this to explore his themes or explain his characters' motivations, in effect providing analysis of his own work. For example, in Part 6, Chapter 23 Kundera classifies his characters into different types based on what motivates them. He classifies Franz as a dreamer and Tereza and Tomas as people motivated by love for partners.
  • He breaks the so-called "Fourth Wall" separating a work and its audience by addressing the reader directly throughout the work. The technique shatters the convention of a self-contained narrative.
  • He points out his characters are fictional, "born of a stimulating phrase or two or from a basic situation." His characters remain unaware of their fictional nature, however.
  • He reveals his purpose for writing the novel. In Part 5, Chapter 15 Kundera says a writer can only write about himself. He admits to being in some of the same situations as his characters. Because his characters cross borders he did not and are his "own unrealized possibilities," Kundera has a basis by which to compare his actions with theirs and judge the outcomes. In this way, Kundera creates Nietzsche's eternal return and a way to give his life weight.
  • He structures his novel to reflect the themes he explores. It is non-linear and non-chronological specifically to create a fictional version in miniature of Nietzsche's idea of eternal return. The section headings for Parts 1 and 5 are the same—Lightness and Weight—as are the headings for Parts 2 and 4—Soul and Body. This intentional repetition and circularity is meant to add weight to the narrative and thus to the characters' lives. By publishing the novel for public consumption, Kundera is also giving his characters the chance to live again and again in the mind of readers.
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