The Unbearable Lightness of Being | Study Guide

Milan Kundera

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being | Part 3, Chapters 1–6 : Words Misunderstood | Summary

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Summary

Part 3 is called "Words Misunderstood." In it Kundera provides several explanations of the words and phrases that reveal the profound differences between the characters Sabina and Franz, a Swiss professor.

This section of the novel follows the close third-person points of view of both Sabina and Franz. In Chapter 1 Franz asks his mistress, Sabina, if she would like to go to Palermo with him. To keep his marriage and mistress separate, he often asks Sabina to travel with him to conferences. When she says she prefers Geneva, he thinks she means she would like to end their affair. This isn't her meaning, however; she's only tired of making love exclusively in foreign cities, and shows this to Franz by sharing a bottle of wine with him. She puts on her iconic bowler hat and stands with him in front of the mirror, but he does not understand what she means by it. She then agrees to go to Palermo with him.

In Chapter 2 Sabina remembers an encounter with Tomas and the bowler hat. The hat, readers learn, is the legacy of "a forgotten grandfather" that passed from her father to Sabina. It is a "prop for her love games with Tomas" and a motif in "the musical composition that was Sabina's life." Each time it returns it has a different meaning, like Heraclitus's riverbed, where one cannot step twice into the same river. The narrator attributes Franz's failure to respond to the hat as Tomas does to the fact that Frank and Sabina met when they are older, their "musical compositions ... more or less complete."

In Chapter 3 Kundera provides a short dictionary of misunderstood words between Franz and Sabina that include woman, fidelity and betrayal, music, and light and darkness. Each word or phrase is explained in a short section.

  • Woman reveals that to Franz, the ideal of womanhood is his long-suffering mother
  • Fidelity and betrayal shows that Sabina is "charmed more by betrayal than by fidelity." She began to love cubism as a deliberate betrayal of her puritanical father who would not let her date at age 14. After her father killed himself following the death of her mother, she felt guilty and so betrayed her husband by leaving him.
  • Music represents pure beauty to Franz. It "liberates" him from loneliness. Sabina, however, does not like music.
  • Light and darkness reveals that Sabina dislikes extremes, including light and darkness. Franz, however, likes both. He associates light with the sun and darkness with lovemaking.

In Chapter 4 Sabina recalls a time she went to a party of Czech expatriates and made fun of an earnest man with an index finger longer than his middle finger. She tells him that people with this characteristic have a tendency to assess others.

Kundera continues his dictionary in Chapter 5, providing definitions for parades, the beauty of New York, Sabina's country, and cemetery.

  • Parades remind Sabina of the forced May Day celebrations of the Communist Youth League in her youth. She hates them. Franz, however, likes them because he is outside with others. They make him feel more real. He sees parades as emblematic of Europe's progression from one revolution to another and one struggle to another. He thinks, "Europe was the Grand March."
  • The Beauty of New York is meaningful to both Franz and Sabina when they visit. However, Sabina likes the "alien quality" of the city's beauty, while Franz finds it frightening.
  • Sabina's country is a concept Franz admires. He feels envious and nostalgic at her descriptions of Czechoslovakia. Sabina, however, feels no love for her country's drama.
  • Cemetery is a word that makes Sabina feels nostalgic. It signifies a beautiful place to walk. But Franz finds it ugly and depressing.

In Chapter 6 Franz's wife Marie-Claude throws a cocktail party for the artists who exhibit in her private gallery. Their 18-year-old daughter, Marie-Anne, is rude to an artist who tries to explain his new technique to her. Upon meeting Sabina, Marie-Claude dismisses Sabina's self-made ceramic pendent as ugly. She does this to show her power over Sabina as the gallery owner, but she doesn't yet know of the affair between Sabina and her husband. Franz takes offense on Sabina's behalf.

Analysis

Sabina and Franz prove as incompatible in these chapters as Tereza and Tomas were earlier in the novel. Neither couple is able to understand the nature of the other's identity and how their differing life experiences have vastly shaped their values. Franz is enchanted by Sabina's lightness, but he does not like the deception inherent in their secret affair. Franz is noble and loyal; to him Sabina embodies womanhood, a Platonic ideal perfected in his mother. His wife, Marie-Claude, sorely lacks womanliness. This is the basis for his belief that Sabina and his mother deserve true fidelity, but Marie-Claude deserves only the appearance of fidelity.

Sabina, however, is not charmed by Franz's fidelity, because her identity is closely tied to her need for betrayal. To her, betrayal is a bold act of breaking with tradition and her father's puritan ways. Even though to most people betrayal is the "most heinous offense imaginable," Sabina finds it appealing because she sees it as "going off into the unknown." In this and in many other ways she is Franz's polar opposite. He considers music liberating while she finds it confining. His giving in to darkness is a way to meld with the infinite, while to her it is "a refusal to see." Sabina loves the peace of cemeteries while Franz finds them ugly.

Perhaps their most fundamental difference lies in their understanding of illusion versus reality. Franz feels his life lived in books and in intellectual pursuits is "unreal" and he longs for the gritty reality that parades and marches represent for him—people fighting alongside each other for their rights. But that vision is not his reality, and his longing for it will lead to his downfall in Part 6. Sabina fights against the kitsch that parades and marches represent. She knows they are merely an illusion of reality that governments want their people to believe in, and her search for identity keeps her on the run from such kitsch. It is why she has trouble identifying with her Czech nationality. Idealists like Franz want to frame her as persecuted and put her on public display, a situation she refuses to accept.

In these chapters the continual juxtaposition of opposites is bound up in one of Kundera's grand themes: the search for identity. Perhaps, as he shows through the characters of Sabina and Franz, we are defined as well by what we reject as by what we embrace.

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