Study Guide

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Milan Kundera

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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 s*** 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.

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