Study Guide

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Analysis

  • Tone

    Serious, Philosophic, Artistic

    The authorial voice of The Unbearable Lightness of Being – whether you consider it to be a fictional narrative character or the author himself speaking – doesn't shy away from analysis, contemplation, or heavy-duty philosophy. And quite often, he will step back from his narrative and draw larger conclusions about human tendencies based on his characters. More often than not, this consists of the narrator Telling You How It Is. A few prime examples:

    When you sit face to face with someone who is pleasant, respectful, and polite, you have a hard time reminding yourself that nothing he says is true, that nothing is sincere. Maintaining nonbelief […] requires a tremendous effort. (5.5.6.)

    Insofar as it is possible to divide people into categories, the surest criterion is the deep-seated desires that orient them to one or another lifelong activity. Every Frenchman is different. But all actors the world over are similar. (5.7.3)

    Men who pursue a multitude of women fit neatly into two categories. Some seek their own subjective and unchanging dream of a woman in all women. Others are prompted by a desire to possess the endless variety of the objective female world. (5.9.1)

    But the end game of Unbearable Lightness is not a philosophical nor political treatise – it's a novel. The fundamentally creative, playful, and artistic aspirations of the author are never undermined by the gravity of his arguments.

  • Genre

    Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Philosophical Literature, Modernism, Romance

    The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a genre-defying text if we ever saw one. On the one hand, it's like a philosophical treatise with extended examples to support its ideas. Much of the text breaks from the plot entirely while the narrator riffs on a variety of complex and interwoven philosophical concepts.

    On the other hand, it is a love story for the ages – the relationship between Tomas and Tereza is epic stuff and at the emotional core of the novel. The importance of the historical setting is undeniable – see "In a Nutshell" for some background and "Setting" for some analysis – which qualifies the novel as historical fiction. You could argue that The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a modernist novel, because of its narrative trickery (see "Narrator Point of View"), non-linear presentation, and shifting levels of reality.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The phrase "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" is Kundera's own, but to understand it we actually have too start with Friedrich Nietzsche and the idea of "eternal return." Eternal return is the idea that our universe and our existence has occurred an infinite number of times in the past, and will continue to occur ad infinitum. In this theory, time is cyclical rather than linear. The idea of eternal return is an ancient one, but Nietzsche, a 19th century German philosopher, popularized it for modern times. That's why the narrator of Unbearable Lightness refers to it as Nietzsche's concept.

    Nietzsche explored what the consequences of such eternal return would be. In his eyes, eternal return was das schwerste Gewicht, or "the heaviest weight." It was a petrifying concept to imagine that our lives have been and will continue to be repeated endlessly. But one could learn, through philosophy, to love the idea. The proper mind can embrace this weight, rather than be terrified by it. Nietzsche seems to conclude in Thus Spoke Zarathustra that we must live and act as though our lives functioned in eternal return, suggesting that we give our own lives meaning and weight by behaving this way. This brings in the concept of amor fati, or the love of one's fate. To embrace eternal return is, roughly speaking, to love one's fate. We talk more about fate in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory," so keep this in mind.

    In Kundera's world, eternal return is a false premise. "Human time does not turn in a circle," he argues; "it runs ahead in a straight line" (7.4.13). So what are the consequences? Well, Nietzsche said that eternal return gives our lives with a sense of weight. So if our lives only occur once, it must mean that they are filled with lightness. This is where Kundera's phrase einmal ist keinmal comes into the picture. He translates this for us: "What happens but once, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all" (1.3.18).

    If we live only once, then we can never compare the decisions we make to any alternatives. And if we can never compare different outcomes, we can never know if the decisions we made are correct or not, which means we can never judge them properly or take responsibility for them. Hence, to live only once is to live with lightness. It's important to keep in mind that Kundera doesn't pose the question of whether life is heavy or light – he suggests that it is light, and then asks questions from there.

    And the major question is this: which is better? Do we want lightness, or do we want weight? Which do we choose? Kundera takes a look at Parmenides, a Greek philosopher in the 5th century B.C. who considered the same question. Parmenides argued that lightness was positive and to be desired, while weight was negative. But the narrator of The Unbearable Lightness of Being isn't so sure about this. "The heaviest of burdens is […] simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfillment," he says (1.2.4). "The heavier the burden, […] the more real and truthful [our lives] become" (1.2.4).

    During the course of the novel, the narrator refers to the lightness of being in two different ways: the sweet lightness of being, and the unbearable lightness of being. A few characters are able, momentarily, to revel in the sweet lightness of being. A key example is Tomas, after Tereza leaves him alone in Zurich and returns to Prague: "Suddenly his step was much lighter. He soared. He had entered Parmenides' magic field: he was enjoying the sweet lightness of being" (1.14.7). For two days, he feels the "sweet lightness of being rise up to him out of the depths of the future" (1.15.4). For it only lasts for two days before he is "hit by a weight the likes of which he had never known" (1.15.4), namely, his compassion for Tereza.

    The narrator first uses the phrase "unbearable lightness of being" when he refers to Sabina, just after she's left Franz in Geneva. "And Sabina–" asks the narrator, "what had come over her? Nothing. She had left a man because she felt like leaving him. Had he persecuted her? Had he tried to take revenge on her? No. Her drama was a drama not of heaviness but of lightness. What fell to her lot was not the burden but the unbearable lightness of being" (3.10.2).

    Kundera argues that lightness is unbearable, but it is up to us as readers to understand the reasons behind this argument. What makes lightness unbearable? Remember Nietzsche's interpretation of eternal return? It's scary, almost paralyzing, to think about eternal return. But on the other hand, it means our lives have meaning, significance, weight. And we can learn to love that. Conversely, lightness may seem at first to be a sweet deal – no responsibility, no judgment, no meaning. Sounds like fun – at first. But eventually, we would like for our lives to mean something. We want them to have weight and significance, because we want them to matter. A great example of this is Tomas's two-year holiday from medicine. At first, he revels in the freedom of having no responsibilities. But after enough time has passed, he decides that two years is about as long as he can stand being on holiday. We're guessing you'd feel the same way after vegging out on your couch for a month.

    The problem is, try as we might to give our lives weight…we cannot. Our lives are fundamentally light precisely because they occur only once. This is evidenced by the four deaths of the four main characters, which we talk about in "What's Up With the Ending?"

    Kundera's argument, then, is two-fold.

    1. Nietzsche was wrong; there is no eternal return; our lives occur only once, and that makes them light.
    2. Parmenides was wrong; such lightness is not sweet, it is unbearable.

    Notice that both these arguments are established right in the title of the novel. Still, it takes the entire novel for the arguments behind these ideas to unfold.

    On a last note, it's interesting that the title of this novel doesn't sound like the title of a novel. This is the title of a philosophical treatise (namely, the title is the main philosophical thesis). This is interesting in the context of the debate in "Genre."
  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Let's Start With Part 7

    The novel gets a bit confusing right around the start of the final section, Part 7. Why? Because Part 6 felt like the ending. We wrapped up some major thematic issues, we followed all our characters to their death (or, in Sabina's, foresaw her death), and we topped it all off with a nice, short, concluding chapter (Part 6, Chapter 29). We were ready to close our books until we realized, hey, there's another 50 pages to go. So what gives? Let's take a closer look at what Kundera accomplishes in Part 7. Then maybe we can figure out what those final fifty pages are doing.

    Part 7 brings home the novel's discussion of the movement of time. By now, Kundera has firmly established his own viewpoint in opposition to Nietzsche's. Nietzsche offered the idea of eternal return, in which time moves circularly and that events were repeated ad infinitum. Kundera disagrees and claims that time is linear, that our lives happen only once. Interestingly, we do get to look at one character – up close in Chapter 7 – for whom time indeed is circular: Karenin.

    The narrator previously hinted at Karenin's importance in a discussion of time, early in the novel. In Part 2 the narrator says:

    Dog time cannot be plotted along a straight line," he explains; "it does not move on and on, from one thing to the next. It moves in a circle like the hands of a clock, which-they, too, unwilling to dash madly ahead-turn round and round the face, day in and day out following the same path. (2.27.1)

    But it is not until Part 7 that the narrator discusses the importance of something like dog time to the novel's human characters.

    In this final section of the novel, the narrator delves into a discussion of the word "idyll" in relation to Tereza and Tomas's life in the countryside and the Paradise of man before the Biblical Fall. He claims that life in the countryside, with its routine and predictability, is an attempt to mimic life in the Garden of Eden: "Life in Paradise was not like following a straight line to the unknown; it was not an adventure. It moved in a circle among known objects. Its monotony bred happiness" (7.4.3). In other words, in the Garden of Eden, man experienced time the way animals experience time – as a circle. As the narrator says explicitly, "Adam was like Karenin" (7.4.4).

    Except, because Adam was like Karenin, Adam wasn't fully human. To be human is to experience time linearly. (Remember Kundera's central thesis of the novel, as established in the opening two chapters, is that we experience time linearly.) This is his rejection of eternal return. For man, life happens only once. Therefore, he says, "the longing for Paradise" (i.e., the longing to experience time in a circle) "is man's longing not to be man" (7.4.5).

    Which brings us to one of the most important passages in Part 7:

    If Karenin had been a person instead of a dog, he would surely have long since said to Tereza, "Look, I'm sick and tired of carrying that roll in my mouth every day. Can't you come up with something different?" And therein lies the whole of man's plight. Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition. (7.4.13)

    Happiness lies in repetition; repetition is at the heart of eternal return; eternal return is what gives lives weight. Because humans don't experience things circularly, events are not repeated for us, which means they don't gather weight, which means they are light – unbearably so. Hence…the unbearable lightness of being.

    And now we start to see why these last fifty pages are important. Kundera began his novel with a premise stated right there in his title: life is light, and is unbearable because of it. And it's not until the end of the novel that he concludes his arguments as to why that is.

    The Final Scene

    You know, after 300 pages of intense philosophy, you begin to expect a bigger bang at the final scene of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. At the very least, you certainly don't expect to end with the main characters walking in a hotel room one night after dancing, ready to go to bed.

    But remember that we've already covered the typical "ending" stuff in Chapter 6 – we already know how Tomas and Tereza will die, what effect this has on those who love them (like Simon and Sabina), and what remains of them after their death. So we don't need a wrap up conclusion here. As far as the narrative or its plotline is concerned, that's already been addressed.

    So what does the final scene do if not wrap up the plot? Plenty. Let's take a closer look at that last paragraph:

    Tomas turned the key and switched on the ceiling light. Tereza saw two beds pushed together, one of them flanked by a bedside table and lamp. Up out of the lampshade, startled by the overhead light, flew a large nocturnal butterfly that began circling the room. The strains of the piano and violin rose up weakly from below.

    Two things jump out as us here. The first is the sound of the piano and violin, which resonate with the novel's idea of the human life as a musical composition. Read all about it in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory." The second is, of course, the large butterfly that flies around the ceiling.

    To begin, the butterfly might remind you of the series of fortuities or lucky events that catalyzed Tereza and Tomas's initial meeting. The narrator said that the fortuities "fluttered down […] like birds to Francis of Assisi's shoulders," and in fact repeated this phrasing several times (another example of the strategic iteration we discuss in "Writing Style") (2.9.7). The butterfly here is a beautiful fortuity in itself.

    And that's not all. Backtrack about a dozen pages to Tereza's dream a few days earlier, as detailed in Part 7, Chapter 6. In her dream, Tomas is turned into a rabbit that she takes in her arms and carries to house where she lived in as a child. There, she is first greeted by her great-grandfather and great-grandmother, and then walks upstairs to her childhood room:

    It had a bed, a table, and a chair. The table had a lamp on it, a lamp that had never stopped burning in anticipation of her return, and on the lamp perched a butterfly with two large eyes painted on its widespread wings. Tereza knew she was at her goal. She lay down on the bed and pressed the rabbit to her face. (7.6.16)

    This is such an interesting dream because it is rooted in the hope for eternal return. Tereza finds a home with her great-grandparents, who have recurred in the present time. Tereza herself has "returned" to the place of her childhood, which means that in this dream, time has moved cyclically for her. When the butterfly crops up again in the final scene, it is a recurrence of this moment here, much the way that Sabina's hat recurs for her and becomes a motif in the musical composition of her life. Remember Kundera's earlier claim that human lives are composed according to the laws of beauty? (Definitely check out "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" for more on this idea.) There are symbols, motifs, recurring images, and symmetries to be found in our lives if we have a keen enough aesthetic sense to recognize these elements of beauty. This butterfly, in the final moments of the novel, is one such element of beauty.

  • Setting

    Prague in the Late 1960s to early 1980s; detours to Paris, Geneva, Zurich, New York, and California

    The Unbearable Lightness of Being takes place in a particular social and political atmosphere. Before you read this discussion, you should make sure to check out "In a Nutshell," where we give a brief history of the Prague Spring of 1968 and the tensions that followed.

    All caught up? Great, because the characters and storyline of the novel are the products of this historical setting. Kundera has said that "for a novelist, a given historical situation is an anthropological laboratory in which he explores his basic question: What is human existence?" (source).

    The particular setting of Prague in 1968 puts the characters in situations that pose some fundamental questions. What does it mean to live in truth? What does it mean to lose one's privacy? How do you fight a totalitarian power? How do you assert individuality against the overwhelming force of conformity? How do you communicate when your means of expression are restricted? Whom do you trust when everyone around you may be lying? Of course, these are the same questions the characters face in their relationships and personal lives.

    By rooting his novel in such a well-defined historical period, Kundera is also able to draw big-picture conclusions based on small-picture scenarios. Consider Tomas's hesitation over whether or not to sign the petition asking for the release of political prisoners. The small picture scenario is Tomas. The big picture scenario is the question which follows: "Is it right to raise one's voice when others are being silenced? Yes," answers the narrator (5.15.10). As Tomas debates the personal consequences of einmal ist keinmal (he can never know if his own decisions are correct), the narrator extends the concept to the broader topic of the decisions mankind has made throughout the course of history. It's a perfect example of Kundera's big-picture endgame:

    History is similar to individual lives in this respect. There is only one history of the Czechs […], never to be repeated.

    In 1618, the Czech estates took courage and vented their ire on the emperor reigning in Vienna by pitching two of his high officials out of a window in the Prague Castle. Their defiance led to the Thirty Years War, which in turn led to the almost complete destruction of the Czech nation. Should the Czechs have shown more caution than courage? The answer may seem simple; it is not.

    Three hundred and twenty years later, after the Munich Conference of 1938, the entire world decided to sacrifice the Czechs' country to Hitler. Should the Czechs have tried to stand up to a power eight times their size? In contrast to 1618, they opted for caution. Their capitulation led to the Second World War, which in turn led to the forfeit of their nation's freedom for many decades or even centuries. Should they have shown more courage than caution? What should they have done?

    If Czech history could be repeated, we should of course find it desirable to test the other possibility each time and com-pare the results. Without such an experiment, all considerations of this kind remain a game of hypotheses.

    Einmal ist keinmal. What happens but once might as well not have happened at all. The history of the Czechs will not be repeated, nor will the history of Europe. The history of the Czechs and of Europe is a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind's fateful inexperience. 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
    . (5.15.16-20)

  • Writing Style

    Iterative, Blunt, Experimental

    Kundera's technique is unusual in that he's willing to mix so many different kinds of writing in one work. As we discuss in "Genre," Unbearable Lightness is a cross between fiction and philosophy, not to mention its historical and political content. In an experimental manner, the text jumps between different characters, plotlines, perspectives, and temporal settings.

    Despite the non-linear narration, there is a strong sense of continuity throughout the novel. Part of this has to do with the thematic connections between the different plotlines (see discussions of lightness and weight in "What's Up with the Title?" or of es muss sein in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory"), and part of it has to do with the specific words and phrases that Kundera iterates again and again. To put it simply: he likes to repeat himself.

    For example, Tomas first imagines Tereza as "a child someone had put in a bulrush basket daubed with pitch and sent down-stream for Tomas to fetch at the riverbank of his bed" (1.3.3). A few paragraphs later, it again occurs to Tomas that she is "child whom he had taken from a bulrush basket that had been daubed with pitch and sent to the riverbank of his bed" (1.3.9). In the next chapter, Tereza is "a child put in a pitch-daubed bulrush basket and sent downstream (1.4.11). You get the idea. When these specific words – "pitch-daubed," "bulrush," "sent downstream" come up again 200 pages later during Tomas's conversation with his son, we as readers immediately remember back to this first instance at the start of the novel. Kundera uses the same strategy with many other phrases to achieve an overall stylistic and strategic effect.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    Lightness and Weight, Eternal Return

    See "What's Up with the Title?" for a full discussion of weight, unbearable lightness, Nietzsche, eternal return, Parmenides, "Einmal ist keinmal." You can also check out "Characters" for details on how these concepts relate to Tomas, Tereza, Sabina, and Franz.

    Es Muss Sein, Beethoven, and Fortuity

    Es muss sein is an important concept in Unbearable Lightness, so you should make sure you're comfortable with it. The phrase is German and translates to, "It must be." Kundera tells you about the origins of the phrase as a motif in one of Beethoven's songs; you can read all about it in Part 5, Chapter 8. We'll talk about the importance of Beethoven in a second.

    In this novel, the phrase comes up when Tomas is debating whether or not to return to Prague after Tereza has left him in Zurich. One he decides to follow her back, he tells his new boss: "es muss sein" (1.15.7). In other words: he has to follow Tereza back. It is his fate – he has no choice.

    Now fate it an interesting concept in the context of the novel's themes of lightness and weight. If you've read "What's Up with the Title?" then you know all about Nietzsche's idea of eternal return. Hand in hand with eternal return is the concept of amor fati, or the love of one's fate. Remember that Nietzsche believed we could learn to embrace eternal return and the burden of weight that went with it. To do this is equivalent to embrace and to love one's fate. For the purposes of this novel, fate goes hand in hand with heaviness or weight. (Yes, this is a simplification of Nietzsche's ideas, but it's about as deep as we need to go right now.)

    It's fitting that the phrase "es muss sein!" is associated with Beethoven, who in the narrator's mind, is a pretty weighty guy. At the end of the novel, Kundera refers to the man's "frown" and "improbably mane," and probably has this painting in mind. Not the most happy-go-lucky guy. On top of that, Beethoven is one of the great loves of Tereza, who, as we discuss in "Character Analysis," is associated with heaviness or weight. Tomas only learns to love Beethoven's music because of Tereza.

    Now let's go back to Tomas. When we refer to Tomas's es muss sein, we mean the elements of his character or life that are beyond his control, that are imposed on him by fate. By telling the doctor "es muss sein" in regards to his return to Prague, Tomas claims that Tereza is part of his es muss sein. But is she?

    This is a complicated question, and one that Tomas has a hard time figuring out for himself. At first he is certain that, yes, Tereza is part of his es muss sein – that's why he must return to Prague. But on the way back, he does some serious thinking. He thinks about all the fortuitous events that precipitated he and Tereza getting together. He identifies six, which is why Tereza becomes known as "the woman born of six fortuities" throughout the novel. This worries him considerably, since, if he and Tereza are together just by chance, they can't possibly be together by fate. Had any one of those six fortuities gone differently, he could be with some other woman instead. He comes to the "conclusion that the love story of his life exemplified not 'Es muss sein!' (It must be so), but rather 'Es konnte auch anders sein' (It could just as well be otherwise)" (1.17.5).

    But that is not the end of the story. The narrator challenges Tomas's conclusion some time later. "Is not an event in fact more significant and noteworthy the greater the number of fortuities necessary to bring it about?" he asks (2.9.2). "Everything that occurs out of necessity, everything expected, repeated day in and day out, is mute. Only chance can speak to us" (2.9.2). This is an important line. What happens by fate = what happens by necessity = what is repeated = that which belongs to the realm of eternal return. What happens by chance = the fortuitous = what happens only once. And yet, says the narrator, what happens only once, by chance, can have meaning, too. This complicates the fundamental lightness/weight dichotomy of the novel, because it argues that what happens only once can have meaning.

    As the novel moves forward, Tomas continues to struggle with the idea of fortuity and es muss sein. The narrator explores what belongs to Tomas's es muss sein later in the novel, in Part 5, and identifies two elements. First is Tomas's profession as a surgeon. "He had come to medicine not by coincidence or calculation," we learn, "but by a deep inner desire" (5.7.2). Second is Tomas's womanizing, "something of an 'es muss sein!' – an imperative enslaving him" (5.7.16). But still we wonder – where does Tereza fit in?

    Tomas grapples with this question after a night of stomach pains and weird erotic dreams. After dreaming of the perfect woman – a woman who radiates calm and femininity – he decides that she is "the 'Es muss sein!' of his love" (5.23.4). And yet, if he had the choice between her and Tereza, he would choose Tereza, "the woman born of six laughable fortuities" (5.23.7). Tomas has no control over his sexual relationships with women – these belong to his es muss sein. But "love is our freedom," he decides. "Love lies beyond 'Es muss sein!'" (5.22.6).

    You can start to see why it is an oversimplification to label characters in this novel as representing weight or lightness. On one level, Tereza represents heaviness for Tomas because she wants him to give up his philandering lifestyle and commit to her alone. On the other hand, she is born of fortuity and not of compulsion, and so for Tomas she belongs to the realm of lightness, not of heavy es muss sein. Your goal in reading and discussing this book should be to explore the way these different concepts manifest themselves in the different characters – not to box the characters in with one label or another.

    The Bowler Hat

    Fortunately for us, the narrator of Unbearable Lightness likes to analyze his own novel. He tells us what the bowler hat signifies over the course of several philosophy-heavy pages. We'll give you the highlights and discuss each one:

    It signified violence; violence against Sabina, against her dignity as a woman. […] The lingerie enhanced the charm of her femininity, while the hard masculine hat denied it, violated and ridiculed it. The fact that Tomas stood beside her fully dressed meant that the essence of what they both saw was far from good clean fun […]; it was humiliation. (3.2.3)

    There is a lot of discussion of sexual humiliation in Unbearable Lightness, and by the end of the novel we see that both Tereza and Sabina harbor a secret desire to be degraded by the men with whom they have sex. (After having sex with the engineer, Tereza wants him to watch her go to the bathroom; Sabina has the same desire after making love with Tomas. This is another example of the continuity achieved through the iteration of specific words and phrases, as discussed in "Writing Style.") The bowler hat is not only a symbol of sexual degradation, but a reminder that such degradation is voluntary, in fact longed for, by the women in this novel.

    It was a memento of her father. After the funeral her brother appropriated all their parents' property, and she, refusing out of sovereign contempt to fight for her rights, announced sarcastically that she was taking the bowler hat as her sole inheritance. (3.2.6)

    Sabina's relationship with her father is complicated. The basic deal is that much of her life has been about betraying her father and the ideas (the kitsch) he tried to instill in her as a child. By refusing to fight for her inheritance, Sabina renewed her betrayal and abandonment of her father. In this way, the bowler hat symbolizes her love of betrayal.

    It was a sign of her originality, which she consciously cultivated. She could not take much with her when she emigrated, and taking this bulky, impractical thing meant giving up other, more practical ones. (3.2.8)

    This follows from our previous comments on Sabina's attraction to betrayal and her lifelong fight against kitsch. Later in the novel, when kitsch is discussed in gory detail, we learn that the individual who insists on his individuality is the enemy of kitsch, because kitsch forces conformity on its followers. If the hat is a symbol of her originality, then it is also a reminder that Sabina's enemy is kitsch.

    It was a vague reminder of a forgotten grandfather, the mayor of a small Bohemian town during the nineteenth century. (3.2.5)

    It was a recapitulation of time, a hymn to their common past, a sentimental summary of an unsentimental story that was disappearing in the distance. (3.2.9)

    The bowler hat was a motif in the musical composition that was Sabina's life. It returned again and again, each time with a different meaning, […] though all former meanings would resonate […] together with the new one. (3.2.10)

    This is where the bowler hat gets really interesting. First, the mention of Sabina's grandfather reminds of us Tereza's own anachronisms (yet another example of strategic repetition on the part of the narrator). Moreover, it sends us back to the idea of eternal return and a cyclical version of time in which events – or in this case, an object – is repeated ad infinitum. Because the bowler hat is repeated over and over again, it has weight or significance (see "What's Up with the Title?" for the philosophic reasoning behind this). Most importantly, these passages introduce an important concept in Unbearable Lightness of Being – motifs. Read on for more.

    Music, Motifs, and Beauty

    Kundera uses the metaphor of a music composition to describe an individual's life. To go through life is to slowly compose our own music. And, like any good composition, the music of our lives contains motifs. In music, a motif is a section of notes that is repeated throughout an otherwise varied composition. To extend Kundera's metaphor, a motif in a person's life is an object or idea that is repeated in different ways. The example he uses is the bowler hat for Sabina – an object that crops up repeatedly, always with slightly different meaning.

    Two interesting discussions branch off of this metaphor. The first explores what happens when two different people try to share their lives. "While people are fairly young and the musical composition of their lives is still in its opening bars," explains the narrator, "they can go about writing it together and exchange motifs (the way Tomas and Sabina exchanged the motif of the bowler hat), but if they meet when they are older, like Franz and Sabina, their musical com-positions are more or less complete, and every motif, every object, every word means something different to each of them" (3.2.13).

    The second point has to do with our ability to recognize motifs – or literary elements – in our own lives. The narrator argues that human lives are in fact composed with the same degree of artistry as a novel. They are symmetrical and crafted; they have motifs and symbols; they are composed with an attention to aesthetics:

    [Human lives] are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven's music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual's life. […] Without realizing it, the individual com-poses his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress. […] It is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty. (2.11.4-5)

    This has interesting implications when we think about the narrative trickery going on in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The narrator openly admits that his characters are fictional, and that the story is intentionally built with symbols (like the bowler hat) that are supposed to mean something. But this passage argues that such fiction doesn't make the characters or their story any less representative of real life. Because real life looks like fiction, fiction can look like real life even when it admits to be fiction. Make sense?


    Kitsch gets a lot of attention in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, so you should make sure you understand the basic concept. Kitsch is a German word that's been adopted by a number of other languages, including English. It refers primarily to art that is overly sentimental or melodramatic, and so refers to aesthetics. What's interesting is the way Kundera uses the concept in his novel, not to talk about art, but to talk about political ideology.

    To begin, Kundera asserts that kitsch is an aesthetic ideal "in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist" (6.5.4). He's not just speaking literally here, but about all the bad, disgusting, negative, violent, depressing things in the world. "Kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence" (6.5.5).

    Kundera then moves on to politics. "Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements," he says (6.9.1). He gives the example of politicians kissing babies as the ultimate kitschy political move. When Sabina recalls the communist parades of her youth, she remembers that the parades tricked the participants into celebrating Communism by pretending they were celebrating life – a hokey, sentimental life embracing only the positive (see Part 6, Chapter 7).

    According to Unbearable Lightness, this is actually not so bad in itself. The problem comes when you have to deal with totalitarian kitsch. He explains this in detail, so we'll let him do the talking here:

    Those of us who live in a society where various political tendencies exist side by side and competing influences cancel or limit one another can manage more or less to escape the kitsch inquisition: the individual can preserve his individuality. The artist can create unusual works. But whenever a single political movement corners power, we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch.

    When I say "totalitarian," what I mean is that everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for life: every display of individualism (because a deviation from the collective is a spit in the eye of the smiling brotherhood); every doubt (be-cause anyone who starts doubting details will end by doubting life itself); all irony (because in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously)
    . (6.9.2-3)

    Go back to Sabina's cryptic thought about 200 pages earlier, that "behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison" (3.5.8). Now we know what that pervasive evil is: totalitarian kitsch.

    So how does one fight kitsch? One answer has its roots in the original, artistic definition of kitsch as sentimental or hokey art. From this perspective, beauty is the enemy of kitsch. The other answer has its roots in the political definition of kitsch as forced conformity. In this sense, someone who insists on individuality is the enemy of kitsch. Sabina, who openly proclaims "My enemy is kitsch!", manages to do both (6.11.6). Jump to Sabina's "Character Analysis" to see how she pulls it off.

    The Grand March of History

    See Franz's "Character Analysis" for a discussion of the Grand March.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person (Peripheral Narrator)

    The narrator in The Unbearable Lightness of Being is probably one of the most unique narrative voices in 20th century literature. The narrator refers to himself in the third person, initially suggesting that he is a character, if a peripheral one, in the story. But he soon confesses to be the author, not the spectator, of the fictional tales. He then proceeds to comment on the characters – his own fictional creations – and analyze his own novel for us.

    The first question that comes up is whether the narrative voice belongs to some fictional narrator created by Kundera, or whether Kundera intends the narrative voice as his own authorial commentary. The answer is that we can't be sure either way. This is not cause for concern; you could argue that it doesn't matter to our reading of the novel. This is a particularly apt discussion in light of the narrator/author's claim that real lives are composed much like fiction – with symbols, symmetries, and recurring motifs that are arranged with an eye for beauty. Check out "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" for a full discussion of this concept. The point the narrator makes here is that his characters are no less "real" for the "fictional" elements that fill their lives. Fiction is supposed to mirror life, but life also mirrors the artistry of fiction because of our innate aesthetic sense.

    The narrator becomes more directly involved in the novel in Part 5, Chapter 15, when he directly discusses his own relationship to the characters. It's a long passage, but worth a close read (or six):

    As I have pointed out before, characters are not born like people, of woman; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered or said something essential about. But isn't it true that an author can write only about himself? Staring impotently across a courtyard, at a loss for what to do; hearing the pertinacious rumbling of one's own stomach during a moment of love; betraying, yet lacking the will to abandon the glamorous path of betrayal; raising one's fist with the crowds in the Grand March; displaying one's wit before hidden microphones—I have known all these situations, I have experienced them myself, yet none of them has given rise to the person my curriculum vitae and I represent. The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border (the border beyond which my own "I" ends) which attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about. The novel is not the author's confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become. (5.15.7)

    Now we can start thinking about what the narrator (or author) is trying to do with his novel. Interestingly, he accomplishes with his novel everything that, according to his novel, we can't do in real life. He disrupts the linearity of time by telling a non-chronological narrative. He achieves a mini-version of eternal return by repeating the same scenes a second or third time. He claims in the passage above that his characters are "his own unrealized possibilities," which means he's using the novel as a way of giving weight to and taking responsibility for his decisions – he gets to compare his own life with different possible outcomes (as represented by his characters). The novel explores the human struggle to give our lives weight despite its necessary and unbearable lightness. And the novel itself is the narrator's attempt at doing just that for himself.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      There are so many reasons why The Unbearable Lightness of Being doesn't follow a typical plotline. To begin with, the novel features several different, interwoven, plotlines revolving around several different protagonists. Even if you identify a climactic situation for one character in one plotline, it doesn't necessarily serve as a climax for the plot as a whole. Additionally, the same events are narrated more than once from different characters' points of view. The plotline is not only non-chronological, but also non-linear. Lastly, the novel is as much a philosophical work of ideas as it is a fictional story of characters, which means we can't break it into purely plot-driven stages.

    • Plot Analysis

      There are so many reasons why The Unbearable Lightness of Being doesn't follow a typical plotline. To begin with, the novel features several different, interwoven, plotlines revolving around several different protagonists. Even if you identify a climactic situation for one character in one plotline, it doesn't necessarily serve as a climax for the plot as a whole. Additionally, the same events are narrated more than once from different characters' points of view. The plotline is not only non-chronological, but also non-linear. Lastly, the novel is as much a philosophical work of ideas as it is a fictional story of characters, which means we can't break it into purely plot-driven stages.

    • Three Act Plot Analysis

      There are so many reasons why The Unbearable Lightness of Being doesn't follow a typical plotline. To begin with, the novel features several different, interwoven, plotlines revolving around several different protagonists. Even if you identify a climactic situation for one character in one plotline, it doesn't necessarily serve as a climax for the plot as a whole. Additionally, the same events are narrated more than once from different characters' points of view. The plotline is not only non-chronological, but also non-linear. Lastly, the novel is as much a philosophical work of ideas as it is a fictional story of characters, which means we can't break it into purely plot-driven stages.