The Unbearable Lightness of Being | Study Guide

Milan Kundera

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being | Part 3, Chapters 7–11 : Words Misunderstood | Summary

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Summary

In Chapter 7, Kundera concludes his dictionary of misunderstood words by exploring three concepts: The old church in Amsterdam, strength, and living in truth.

  • The old church in Amsterdam is an object of fascination to Franz. It represents history and it also makes him wish he could excise all traces of his marriage and family from his life. To Sabina it stands for a beauty that has been betrayed—in this case, by the government.
  • Strength is embodied in Franz's muscles. But Sabina feels that though Franz is physically strong, he's weak in dealing with people. She is appalled to hear him say "Love means renouncing strength," which sounds noble but "disqualifie[s] him from her love life."
  • Living in truth is a concept that Franz finds hard to embrace. He enjoys the "lying and hiding" involved in infidelity. Sabina believes one can only live in truth "away from the public." When one is scrutinized, that scrutiny has a part in directing one's behavior.

Franz decides Marie-Claude's rudeness to Sabina justifies a break with her, and he admits his affair with Sabina to his wife. He feels lightness and tells himself he's finally "living in truth."

In Chapter 8, Sabina and Franz have dinner in Rome. When they make love that night, Sabina is extra passionate because she knows it will be the last time. She does not want the relationship to be exposed to public scrutiny.

Franz comes home to his wife in Chapter 9, but she expects him to move out. He goes to Sabina's flat, but she does not answer, and soon he discovers she has moved and ended their affair. He rents a flat and begins an affair with a student who admires him. When he asks his wife for a divorce in order to marry the student, Marie-Claude refuses.

In Chapter 10, after four years in Geneva, Sabina moves to Paris, but she finds her life unbearably light and empty. She wonders if this emptiness is the "goal of all her betrayals."

Three years later, she receives a letter from Tomas's son informing her that Tomas and Tereza have died in a car accident. Walking through a cemetery to calm herself, she is horrified to see a heavy gravestone. It is, she thinks, like telling the dead to stay dead. She wonders if she should have given the affair with Franz a chance but decides it's too late.

In Chapter 11 Franz continues his relationship with his student-mistress, but he remains faithful in his mind to his memory of Sabina, whom he considers his "goddess."

Analysis

Franz and Sabina are both unable to grasp how their pasts have shaped their understandings of their relationship. As an idealist, Franz believes "living in truth" means having nothing to hide and "breaking down the barriers" between one's private and public lives. For him, this means admitting his affair with Sabina to his wife so that he and Sabina can live open and honest lives. But Sabina, scarred by her past, believes "Having a public, keeping a public in mind, means living in lies." Once Franz reveals their relationship, it is no longer desirable to Sabina. Sabina would have to act a certain part while under the scrutiny of Marie-Claude and her society friends, and she could no longer be true to herself. A public love is a heavy love, and Sabina rejects its weight; therefore, her only recourse is to leave.

After Sabina disappears, Franz realizes his attraction to her was rooted in his need to sweep away the clutter in his life and embrace the freedom of emptiness. He takes a student-mistress as a physical anchor, but his soul strains for the ideal woman Sabina represented to him. But this is mere illusion, a fact Kundera hammers home by making sure there is no tangible trace of Sabina in Franz's life. Franz makes her his religion, and his soul remains faithful to her and her alone.

Sabina, however, is not interested in being anyone's goddess. Readers could argue she actually wishes for the opposite, which is why her fantasies always have her coming back to her sexual humiliation at the hands of Tomas in her memory of their first time with the bowler hat. Of course, in reality, she would not stand to be ordered about, and this disqualifies Tomas, ultimately, from her love life. Additionally, she abhors Franz's nobility, perhaps seeing her own lack of it, which also disqualifies him.

When she realizes that she has disqualified all men from being in her life, from weighing her down, Sabina feels "the unbearable lightness of being." Kundera, through this character, seems to say that the freedom embodied in lightness has its dark side in loneliness.

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