The Unbearable Lightness of Being | Study Guide

Milan Kundera

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being | Themes


Lightness versus Weight

Kundera presents Nietzsche's idea of eternal return as the basis for humanity's elusive search for meaning. Because humans live only one life in a linear fashion, they are destined to fade away in irrelevance, like a shadow without weight. Kundera calls this the unbearable lightness of being, and each of his characters struggle with it in some way.

Tomas experiences conflict between the heaviness of his compassion for Tereza and the lightness of his libertine ways. Tereza finds her identity in her soul, which makes her the "heaviest" of the characters. Her central conflict is accepting that Tomas loves her despite his lightness. In Part 4, Chapter 11 Tereza has a nightmare in which Tomas sends her off to die. The implication is clear: death is the only solution to the irreconcilable dichotomy between his lightness and her weight. And indeed, as Sabina points out in Part 3, Chapter 10, because Tomas and Tereza die in "the same second," in death they are bound together at last. Tomas dies as Tereza's love and not as a libertine.

Sabina's entire life's mission has been to cast off the burden of emotional entanglements. She betrays home, love, country, and citizenship in order to be light and free. Even so, she must admit that this freedom comes with the feeling of emptiness and the unbearable lightness of being. In the end, however, she seems to be satisfied with her life choices, and she writes a will to ensure her ashes will be thrown to wind to achieve the final pinnacle of lightness. When Franz chases after the illusion of Sabina's approval instead of being satisfied with the real happiness he finds with his student mistress, he, too, gives into the allure of lightness.

Finally, the novel as a whole can be seen as an exercise in creating the weight of eternal return. Kundera tells the story in non-chronological order, circling back again and again to the same incidents from various points of view to give them weight. At the end he presents an image of a butterfly circling a room. Because the butterfly is a symbol for the soul, Kundera possibly means to leave the reader with hope that the soul can achieve the weight of eternal return in immortality.

Search for Identity

Because Kundera's author/narrator persona explicitly admits to inventing his characters, the characters can be seen as devices by which he explores his themes. Kundera explains, for example, that Tomas was born out of the German phrase "Einmal ist keinmal" (what happens once might as well not have happened at all). Tomas arose out of Kundera's desire to explore the notion of eternal return and the polarity between lightness and weight. Kundera presents Tomas as a "light" character, a libertine who avoids heavy emotional entanglements by sleeping with a constantly rotating stable of women. He does this to uncover the "I" in as many women as possible, to collect the experiences of unique identities.

Possibly Tomas does so ultimately to uncover his own "I." By living only once, Tomas is not able to collect different outcomes of the same situation played out in divergent ways. Tomas also finds his identity in his calling to be a surgeon, where he uses a scalpel to discover the body. When he gives up his practice of medicine, he gives up an important part of himself, but he does it out of love for Tereza. It is fitting, then, that they die together, joining their two halves of a whole as one.

Tereza finds her identity primarily in her "heavy" (meaningful) soul, not her body. She spends hours in front of the mirror looking for her "I" and the spark of her soul. But in her relationship with Tomas, she has a crisis of identity. She feels that if he really loved her, he would see that her soul made her body special and worthy of being the only one he has sex with, not one among many. Her nightmares illustrate how she feels he is killing her soul, and therefore her identity. Tereza attempts to find ways to be "lighter" and thus more like Tomas. She is first obsessed with becoming his alter ego and joining him in his sexual escapades. Then she studies the art of flirtation and has an affair with the engineer. Ultimately, Tereza cannot escape who she is, and so she must pull Tomas down with her, convincing him to go to the countryside where he must give up his affairs, and thus his own search for identity.

Sabina and Franz's identities are explored via their polarities. Sabina values originality, betrayal, and reality, while Franz values Plutonic ideals, fidelity, and illusion. Their time together is brief because they have too many misunderstood words between them. Like Tomas, Sabina finds her identity in her career. Her artwork enables her to fight the kitsch of the universal idyllic imagery she hates so much. Her theme of "double exposure" shows the gritty reality that lies below the sanitized illusion. Franz is no lover of art or kitsch, but he is a dreamer, and, as such, he is easily seduced by the illusion of a just cause. This is what the Grand March is for him, and he joins it after Sabina leaves him because he feels her imaginary eyes upon him, admiring his noble spirit.

Chance versus Fate

Kundera rhapsodizes at length about the beauty of coincidence in his characters' lives, yet he also admits to being to grim architect of their fates. This may lead the reader to wonder if orchestrated chance can be considered a measure of free will.

In Part 1 Kundera explores the role chance and fate has in Tomas's life. Tomas feels he must return to Tereza because she is his fate. He echoes a motif in one of Beethoven's pieces to declare, "It must be!" And in Part 1, Chapter 16, the author points out that Beethoven himself viewed weight as positive, that "a weighty resolution is at one with the voice of fate."

And yet Tomas realizes it has taken "six chance happenings to push [him] towards Tereza" in the first place. In the first few chapters of Part 5, Kundera underlines the power of chance in shaping Tomas's fate. The character's chance meeting with Tereza causes a chain of events that ends with Tomas becoming a window washer. Perhaps if Tomas had never met Tereza, he would have never pondered the Oedipus myth, would have never written the article that offended the communists, and would still be a surgeon.

In Part 2, Chapter 9 Kundera declares: "Chance and chance alone has a message for us." Tereza sees chance sending her the message that her fate is with Tomas. She took notice of Tomas in her restaurant not only because he was reading a book, but also because Beethoven was playing when he ordered a cognac from her. Both books and Beethoven represent sophistication for her. Later, after Tereza returns to Prague and Tomas follows her, she at first is depressed, but then she realizes the hour of his return was the same hour that her shift ended when they first met. She takes this coincidence as proof that they are indeed meant to be together.

As with his other themes, Kundera does not offer a conclusive resolution to the relative roles chance and fate play in the lives of his characters—or his readers. Instead, he weaves a story, all the time reminding his readers that the story is a work of fiction, and lets readers draw their own conclusions.

Fidelity versus Betrayal

All four main characters have different attitudes when it comes to fidelity and betrayal. Tomas is a blatant sexual libertine, admitting to having sex with well over 200 women, even while being married to Tereza. But Tomas believes sleeping with a woman one loves—an activity of the soul—is a "separate passion" from making love to a woman—an activity of the body. Even if he gives his body to many other women, Tomas contends that he is faithful to Tereza in the way that counts. Tereza is the sole occupant of his poetic memory, meaning she has sole access to his soul.

Yet Tereza cannot accept that Tomas really loves her while he is being physically unfaithful to her. She sees him as her savior from the vulgar world of her mother, where all bodies are the same. And yet, by treating her body no differently than he treats those of other women, he is trapping her back in the very world she escaped from. Tereza also believes that the uneven construction of their relationship relies on her absolute fidelity in soul and in body. After her ill-advised attempt to see bodies the way Tomas does by having sex with the engineer, Tereza is paranoid that Tomas will find out and their love will not withstand her betrayal.

Sabina's entire identity is based on betrayal, and she sees it not as a negative but as a break with tradition and an adventure into the unknown. She also sees it as a way to fight kitsch, the universal idyllic imagery that hides the grittier truth. Sabina believes "beauty is a world betrayed," and to find it, one has to "demolish the scenery" behind symbols of kitsch like the May Day parade or the Grand March. This sentiment is found in the "double exposure" theme of her art. Her lover Franz does not understand this about Sabina. He cannot stand living the lie implicit in their affair and he wishes to live in truth with Sabina. This is why he confesses their affair to his wife, but this urge for fidelity on Franz's part is the very thing that drives Sabina away.

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