The Unbearable Lightness of Being | Study Guide

Milan Kundera

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being | Plot Summary

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Summary

Part 1: Lightness and Weight

In his author/narrator persona, Kundera explores Nietzsche's idea of eternal return. He introduces Tomas, a Czech surgeon in Prague who is trying to decide whether he should contact Tereza, a woman he met on a business trip. He surmises that if he invites her to visit, she will come to stay, so he does nothing. But Tereza makes the decision for him, coming to visit with all her things packed in a heavy suitcase. At first he rents Tereza a room as to not offend his many lovers, including a Czech artist named Sabina.

Soon Tereza begins having nightmares because of his infidelity. Tomas, however, refuses to change his libertine ways. He feels trapped, and though he now finds other women distasteful, he cannot give them up. Sabina is annoyed by his distracted nature when he comes to her. To mollify Tereza somewhat, Tomas marries her and gets her a dog, Karenin. During the Soviet occupation Tomas is offered a job in Zurich, and he takes it because Tereza is so unhappy in Prague.

Tomas continues having affairs in Zurich. He visits Sabina, who has moved to Geneva, to make love. Seven months later, Tomas comes home to find Tereza has gone back to Prague. He is shocked, then relieved. He gives his resignation at the hospital, saying "It must be!" and returns to Prague to be with Tereza. Once he is back, however, he fears he made a mistake.

Part 2: Soul and Body

Part 2 covers the same time period as Part 1, but from Tereza's point of view. In his narrator persona Kundera begins Part 2 by explaining that his characters never actually lived: "they were born of a stimulating phrase or two or from a basic situation."

Tereza shows up at Tomas's flat and her hungry stomach embarrasses her. She has a curious relationship with her body due to her history with her vulgar mother. Tereza's mother was once beautiful, but when she turned ugly, she scoffed at privacy and acted like beauty did not matter. When Tereza once attempted to shield her mother's nudity, her mother ridiculed her. So when Tereza meets Tomas, she yearns to join his sophisticated world. After a brief flirtation she meets him after her shift at the restaurant. This sets in motion events that lead to her falling in love with Tomas and traveling with her heavy suitcase and copy of Anna Karenina to Prague to move in with him.

Tereza begins to learn photography with Sabina's help. Tereza's nightmares intensify, and she uses them as a way to communicate to Tomas that she hates his infidelity. They are horrifying to her because they bring her back to her shameful past, the world of her mother where she was just another body and nobody special. She begins to feel vertigo and considers returning to her mother, who claims she has cancer. Tomas investigates and discovers Tereza's mother is lying. Tereza becomes obsessed with the idea of becoming Tomas's alter ego and joining him in his affairs. To this end, she visits Sabina and takes nude photos of her. During the Soviet invasion, Tereza takes photos, but when she offers them up for publication after moving to Switzerland, they are rejected as not being current enough. She gives up on photography and concentrates on being a wife. But when a woman calls for Tomas at home, Tereza decides to give up on her marriage as well. She returns to Prague. Five days later, Tomas comes to her, and she takes him back.

Part 3: Words Misunderstood

Part 3 is told from the perspectives of the characters Sabina and Franz. Sabina has success selling her paintings in Geneva. She has begun an affair with Franz, a Swiss professor. She tries to recreate the excitement she had with Tomas by wearing her bowler hat, but Franz does not understand. Franz fails to understand a great many things about her, and Kundera provides a dictionary of misunderstood words that crystallize the differences between the two characters. When Sabina meets Franz's wife, Marie-Claude, at a dinner party, Marie-Claude disparages Sabina's pendant. Franz is offended as he does not think Marie-Claude measures up to the epitome of womanhood that Sabina represents to him.

Franz decides he can no longer live the duplicitous life of a deceitful man and confesses his affair with Sabina to his wife. He informs Sabina of this on a trip to Rome. Sabina cannot stand the idea of being scrutinized for her relationship with Franz, so she decides to leave him. Unaware of Sabina's decision, Franz returns to his wife, who urges him to move out. He discovers Sabina's flat empty.

Dejected, he rents his own flat and takes a student-mistress. Marie-Claude refuses to grant him a divorce. Sabina moves to Paris, her life now unbearably light and empty. Three years later, she receives a letter from Tomas's son informing her of Tomas and Tereza's deaths. Meanwhile, Franz is happy with his student-mistress, but he is nevertheless obsessed with the imaginary presence of Sabina, whom he considers his "goddess."

Part 4: Soul and Body

Part 4 returns to Tereza's perspective. Tereza continues to struggle with Tomas's infidelity, and she is upset that she has to smell another woman's groin in his hair. The atmosphere in Prague worsens under the Soviet occupation. Private citizens' lives are being aired on the radio, and Tereza equates the exposure with how her mother allowed her no privacy and read her diary aloud. She feels her mother's world begin to close in on her again. Tereza decides she should try to be "light" like Tomas and begins to flirt with men in the bar where she works. She has a dream in which she begs Tomas to help her and he sends her to die. When an engineer takes interest in her and invites her up to his flat, she agrees, but her soul is reluctant. It disapproves of what her body does, and she spits in his face. She feels terrible afterwards.

Later, Tereza finds a dying crow and brings it home. She cares for it obsessively, seeing her weakness reflected in it, but it dies. Because the engineer never returns to her bar, Tereza becomes paranoid that he was sent by the secret police. Tereza and Tomas travel to a spa town outside Prague they once visited and are disturbed that all the names are now in Russian. They meet one of Tomas's former patients, now a chairman of a collective, who makes Tereza think moving to the countryside may solve their problems.

Part 5: Lightness and Weight

Part 5 is told from Tomas's point of view. Once he returns to Prague from Zurich, Tomas begins his descent from respected surgeon in a major hospital to regular doctor in a suburban clinic, to window washer. It all starts with a political commentary he writes because he is inspired to revisit the Oedipus myth as a result Tereza's arrival in his life. The piece is published during the Prague Spring of 1968, when media restrictions are liberalized for a short time. Later the communist government cracks down on freedom of speech and Tomas is asked to write a retraction. He does not and is fired from his surgeon position. He then has to leave his position at a suburban clinic when the authorities begin to hound him.

For Tomas, being a window washer is like being on a long holiday. He has plenty of time to pursue women, which he does with gusto, trying out all types, including a woman who looks like both a stork and a giraffe. When Tereza brings home a dying crow, he is touched. He knows that only Tereza occupies his poetic memory, and thus his soul.

One day his son, Simon, hires him to wash windows and asks him to sign a petition to the government. Tomas refuses because he realizes he needs to protect Tereza first and foremost. He knows something needs to change when Tereza shares her nightmare about being buried alive and no longer having eyes. Tereza suggests moving to the countryside and admits to hating smelling other women in his hair. Tomas dreams of his perfect woman, and he imagines leaving Tereza to find her but knows he cannot.

Part 6: The Grand March

Part 6 returns to the story of Franz and Sabina. In his narrator persona, Kundera explores why Sabina hates kitsch—artifacts of a cheap, lowbrow culture—so much. Kitsch is "the absolute denial of" defecation, and Sabina objects to communism because of "the mask of beauty it tried to wear." Sabina lives in America, a country also not immune to kitsch, which arises when one feels warm and cozy after viewing idyllic imagery. Sabina would rather live in the reality of communism than in communist kitsch. But despite trying to escape kitsch, Sabina finds her art patrons want to make kitsch out of her Czech identity. She also finds herself in an idyllic setting with an elderly American couple, proving she, too, is not fully immune to kitsch.

Meanwhile, Franz is happily living with his student-mistress until the day friends call and ask him to join a protest march in Cambodia. Franz answers the call because he feels Sabina would want him to. The protestors organize in Bangkok and take buses to the border. During the march an American photographer steps on a land mine while trying to get an iconic photo of an American actress. The delegation returns to Bangkok, and Franz realizes the undertaking was foolhardy. Still, he feels Sabina's imaginary approval. Unfortunately, Franz is attacked outside his hotel, and when he returns to Geneva, he is on his deathbed. Marie-Claude takes over his care and funeral arrangements, playing the part of the triumphant widow.

Simon is invited to visit his father, Tomas. He does, but four months later, Tomas and Tereza are killed. Simon continues to write Sabina letters. She moves to California and writes a will stipulating that her ashes be spread to the wind.

Part 7: Karenin's Smile

Part 7 goes back in time to continue the story of Tereza and Tomas. The couple now lives in the countryside. Tomas drives a truck for a living, and Tereza tends to the cows on the farm. Although there is not much to do, they are happy enough until Karenin, their dog, gets cancer. Tereza and Tomas spend their time trying to get Karenin to "smile." Tereza fears life without Karenin, because she suspects her love for Karenin is more pure than her love for Tomas. Soon they have to euthanize Karenin and bury him in the yard. Tereza later has another nightmare. This one ends with Tomas turning into a rabbit, and she realizes he has become as weak as she is. They drive to a nearby town to go dancing. When they go upstairs to bed afterwards, a butterfly begins circling the room.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Tomas and Tereza meet, and she moves to Prague.

Rising Action

2 Tereza discovers Tomas's infidelities.

3 Tomas, Tereza, and Sabina emigrate to Switzerland.

4 Tereza moves back to Prague, and Tomas follows.

5 Sabina begins an affair with Franz.

6 Franz confesses the affair, and Sabina leaves him.

7 Tomas becomes a window washer.

8 Tereza has an affair with an engineer.

Climax

9 Tomas and Tereza move to the countryside.

Falling Action

10 Tomas and Tereza die in a car accident.

11 Franz dies after a protest march in Cambodia.

Resolution

12 Sabina moves to America.

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