The Unbearable Lightness of Being
by Milan Kundera
Tomas and his Many Women
Tomas is a 40-year-old surgeon living in Prague at the start of the novel. He's maintained a lifestyle of perpetual and fortified bachelorism best summed up in his rule of threes: "Either you see a woman three times in quick succession and then never again, or you maintain relations over the years but make sure that the rendezvous are at least three weeks apart" (1.5.6).
Even after he gets married, Tomas continues this endless string of sexual encounters with new and unknown women. At first, you might be inclined to dislike the guy. But the narrator makes sure that we understand Tomas rather than judge him. As a starting point, we note that Tomas honestly feels he is being faithful to his wife. Here's his argument:
"Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman)." (1.6.8)
His point – and he reiterates this later – is that sex and love are two different things. He is emotionally faithful to Tereza, even though he is physically unfaithful.
The narrator also makes the point that Tomas isn't simply sex-crazed. He explains the reasons behind Tomas's womanizing in extensive detail about halfway through the novel. First, the narrator explains that womanizers come in two breeds: epic and lyrical. The lyrical types seek their own ideal of the perfect woman, never find her, and are consistently disappointed. The epic womanizers are curiosity collectors, interested in all women because all women are unique. Tomas is the latter. Every time he has sex with a different woman, he has collected something unique from the world.
It turns out that for Tomas this epic obsession actually has little to do with sex. Tomas has sex with a woman in an attempt to discover what is unique about her – the one-millionth part of her that makes her different from all other women.
Tomas was obsessed by the desire to discover and appropriate that one-millionth part; he saw it as the core of his obsession. He was not obsessed with women; he was obsessed with what in each of them is unimaginable, obsessed, in other words, with the one-millionth part that makes a woman dissimilar to others of her sex. (5.9.7)
By finding out what this one-millionth part is, by knowing, Tomas conquers and possesses another part of the world. As Kundera says, "it was a desire not for pleasure […] but for possession of the world […] that sent him in pursuit of women" (5.9.12, our italics).
Possession, power, and control are important buzzwords when it comes to Tomas. In every sexual encounter we witness, Tomas begins by commanding the woman with a single word: "Strip!" In this novel, sex is often about one person having control over the other – it's never about equality. The narrator makes it clear that Tomas is always the one in control.
And yet, in a way, Tomas is at the mercy of his womanizing, because it is beyond his control. "Was he genuinely incapable of abandoning his erotic friendships?" the narrator asks. "He was. It would have torn him apart. He lacked the strength to control his taste for other women" (1.10.2). In Kundera terms, womanizing is part of Tomas's "es muss sein!", or "it must be!" We have a lot to say on the concept of es muss sein – and its relevance to Tomas's character – in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory." If you haven't read it yet, go ahead and do that now, but come right back.
Let's continue with the claim that Tomas's womanizing is a part of his es muss sein – it is a compulsion that he can do nothing about. This is interesting in two ways. First, it means that we have another reason to not judge Tomas for his endless philandering; it is just part of his nature. Second, it means that Tomas's womanizing isn't a happy-go-lucky lifestyle of lightness; it's rooted in the weight of fate and compulsion.
We are told that there are two halves to Tomas's es muss sein: his womanizing and his career as a surgeon. Because we talk about the former in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory," we'll go more in depth here with the latter.
The Other Es Muss Sein: Tomas's Profession
The narrator tells us that Tomas "[came] to medicine not by coincidence or calculation but by a deep inner desire," compelled to it by an internal es muss sein (5.7.2). Why, then, does he choose to lose his job – cast off his es muss sein – instead of writing a retraction of his Oedipus article? This is a tough question.
Fortunately for us, our narrator was similarly bothered and decided to explore the question himself:
It is my feeling that Tomas had long been secretly irritated by the stern, aggressive, solemn "Es muss sein!" […] What could be at the bottom of it all but a rash and not quite rational move to reject what proclaimed itself to be his weighty duty, his "Es muss sein!" (5.8.5)
At first, Tomas revels in the sweet lightness of having no responsibilities. Early on, he claims that he's on "a grand holiday" (5.8.11). But this only lasts so long before Tomas can take no more of window washing and freedom. It turns out that two years is about as much holiday as anyone can take. To contextualize this in the grander scheme of Kundera's philosophic argument, you might say the following: man can try to embrace lightness, to revel in a life of freedom and meaninglessness, but he will fail in doing so. The lightness of being is, and always will be, unbearable.
Tomas and Einmal ist Keinmal
The other Big Idea explored through the character of Tomas is einmal ist keinmal, which means "what happens once might as well not have happened at all." Before we launch into this discussion, you'll find it helpful to first read "What's Up with the Title?", where we discuss Kundera's rejection of eternal return.
The reason we associate Tomas with einmal ist keinmal is because the narrator tells us to: "[Characters are] not born of a mother's womb; they [are] born of a stimulating phrase or two […]. Tomas was born of the saying "Einmal ist keinmal" (2.1.1). Since by now you've read "What's Up With the Title?" you know that einmal ist keinmal is a direct consequence of Kundera's claim that our lives happen only once. When we make a decision, we can't know if it was right or not, because we can't compare it to other possible outcomes.
The connection to Tomas comes in with the many difficult decisions that his character faces in the course of the novel. The first time we see him is in the opening of the first plotline: "I have been thinking about Tomas for many years," begins the narrator. "But only in the light of these reflections did I see him clearly. I saw him standing at the window of his flat and looking across the court-yard at the opposite walls, not knowing what to do" (1.3.1).
Tomas is certainly faced with a slew of difficult decisions. In this case, the decision is whether to call Tereza back to Prague and take up her life when she offers it to him. Later on, Tomas has to decide whether or not to leave Zurich and follow Tereza back to Prague. After that, he has to decide whether to retract his Oedipus article or lose his job. And yet again after that, he has to decide whether to sign the petition given to him by the activist editor and Tomas's own son. When this final whopper comes along, the narrator reminds us that Tomas has been in this spot before: "And once more I see him the way he appeared to me at the very beginning of the novel: standing at the window and staring across the courtyard at the walls opposite" (5.15.4).
And this is where we launch into the real meat of what einmal ist keinmal means through Tomas's eyes:
And again he thought the thought we already know: Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third, or fourth life in which to compare various decisions. […] Einmal ist keinmal. What happens but once might as well not have happened at all. […] History is as light as individual human life, unbearably light, light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow. (5.15.15-20)
Does this make sense in the larger context of the novel? This is a great example of the way Kundera uses his character to explore his philosophical and aesthetic ideas. But it also shows how Kundera brilliantly unites all of his philosophic ideas – whether it be es muss sein or einmal ist keinmal or, as we'll see in the other character analyses, kitsch or the soul/body duality – under the banner of the novel's central thesis: the unbearable lightness of being.