The Unbearable Lightness of Being | Study Guide

Milan Kundera

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being | Part 1, Chapters 1–6 : Lightness and Weight | Summary

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Summary

Part 1 is called "Lightness and Weight," a statement of the novel's major theme. Its first two chapters introduce the myth of eternal return, which posits that only those things that recur ad infinitum have weight, or a "solid mass," while those things that occur once are "without weight" and "mean nothing." The 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called eternal return "the heaviest of burdens." But, Kundera says, weight can also bring man closer to reality and truth. The ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides contended that lightness is preferable. Kundera wonders whether Parmenides was correct and concludes, "The lightness/weight opposition is the most mysterious ... of all."

Part 1 follows the close third-person point of view of the character Tomas after the beginning of the first paragraph of Chapter 3, in which Kundera tells readers he has been "thinking about Tomas for many years." In his vision, Tomas is standing at a window, looking across a courtyard to the opposite walls and wondering what to do.

Tomas is a surgeon at a hospital in Prague. His story starts when Tereza comes to visit him in Prague after having just met him. She becomes sick with a fever, and Tomas cares for her for a week before she leaves. He struggles with whether to contact her again and does not know what he wants.

In Chapter 4 Tereza makes the decision for Tomas by calling him up and announcing she is in Prague. She has come with her suitcase, and he allows her to stay. In Chapter 5 Tomas remembers his former life as a husband and father. He no longer has contact with his son and deems himself unfit for marriage, instead having numerous affairs. His lover Sabina gets a job for Tereza in a darkroom. In Chapter 6 Tomas must rent a room for Tereza to avoid offending his numerous lovers. Tereza physically holds on to Tomas in sleep, a trait he finds endearing.

Analysis

Kundera uses the first two chapters of the novel to introduce his main themes: lightness and weight. He seems not to have decided which he prefers. A world of lightness with an absence of burdens permits cynicism and perverse morality where "everything is pardoned in advance." Yet in a world of eternal return, where the events of our lives recur infinitely, "the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make."

Tomas is a character born of Kundera's exploration of lightness. "Einmal ist keinmal," Tomas says in Chapter 3, which translated from German means "what happens but once, might as well not have happened at all." He uses this adage as an excuse for his life of freedom and infidelity. He is indecisive and noncommittal, preferring life as a bachelor. This is the reason he fears contacting Tereza. He senses the heaviness in her, and that, once invited, Tereza would "offer him up her life" and become his responsibility. And so he does not act.

But Tereza comes anyway, with her love and her heavy suitcase and becomes his burden, a burden he finds he cannot live without. Indeed, if Tomas represents lightness, then Tereza represents weight. She literally holds him down in the "deep breath of sleep," and she becomes the only woman Tomas allows to sleep through the night with him.

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