The Unbearable Lightness of Being | Study Guide

Milan Kundera

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being | Symbols


Bowler Hat

Because of its circular shape, Sabina's bowler hat represents a physical embodiment of eternal return. The bowler hat returns again and again in Sabina's life, each time adding a new meaning and allowing all previous meanings to resonate "like an echo, like a parade of echoes." It reminds her of her grandfather, because it once belonged to him, and also of her father, because it was the only item she claimed as her inheritance after his death. She uses it as a prop in her lovemaking games, and it has also become a sentimental object and a symbol of her originality. As such, it is also emblematic of her identity and her hatred of kitsch.

But as Kundera points out explicitly, Sabina's bowler hat has another, more sinister meaning. "It signified violence," he says in Part 3, Chapter 2, "violence against Sabina, against her dignity as a woman." For whatever reason, Sabina has an inner desire to be degraded by her lovers. This is what excites her about Tomas and makes her realize Franz is not for her because he is too noble to use his strength against her.


Books represent a world of sophistication for Tereza. She is initially attracted to Tomas because he has an open book in her bar, and in her world people are not known for reading. She thinks this makes the two of them part of a secret society. When she goes to Prague with the intention of living with Tomas, Tereza carries a copy of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. She believes it is her ticket into Tomas's sophisticated world. When Tomas gets her a male dog, they name it Karenin after the main character.

Later, in Part 4, Chapter 16 Tereza trusts the engineer because he has books. "A man with this sort of library couldn't possibly hurt her," she thinks at the time. Because she equates books with sophistication, she lets her guard down and ends up sleeping with him. Afterwards, however, she becomes paranoid that he only had books in order to trap her and that he is actually with the secret police. Her symbol of sophistication is thus also a tool of the state she fears because it has the potential to destroy her privacy.


As Kundera explains in Part 2, Chapter 15, nudity is a symbol of humiliation and uniformity for Tereza, stemming from her youth when her mother allowed her no privacy. Tereza's mother exposed her nude body as a way to strip meaning from beauty because she had lost it. She also saw how uncomfortable nudity made Tereza and used it as weapon to strip power from Tereza.

Similarly, Tereza wields the weapon of nudity against Sabina when she visits Sabina's studio. Sabina has been sleeping with Tomas, and Tereza asks Sabina to strip in order to shift the balance of power in her favor. Sabina is smart enough to recognize this, however, and asks Tereza to strip as well.

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