Study Guide

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Quotes

  • Life, Consciousness, Existence

    This reconciliation with Hitler reveals the profound moral perversity of a world that rests essentially on the nonexistence of return, for in this world everything is pardoned in advance and therefore everything cynically permitted. (1.1.8)

    In the first two chapters, Kundera establishes the philosophical premises of his novel. If everything in the world occurs once, we cannot pass judgment on it. Everything we experience in this one life would then have a certain lightness. If everything were to recur, only then would it attain weight and importance. Only then should we feel responsibility for our actions.

    We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come. (1.3.15)

    Notice that things happen many times over the course of this novel, because we hear the same event from different perspectives. Additionally, the narrator later claims that these characters are his own unrealized possibilities. By exploring what could have been, by comparing his own choices with the other possibilities, the narrator is giving his own life weight and experiencing eternal return.

    The two of them got into his car, which was parked in front of the house, and drove to the station. There he claimed the suitcase (it was large and enormously heavy) and took it and her home. (1.4.5)

    Kundera reiterates the suitcase's weight many times throughout the novel. Tereza brings weight into Tomas's life, disrupting his otherwise light lifestyle. By asking for commitment and love, she asks him to abandon lightness in favor of weight.

    Early in the novel that Tereza clutched under her arm when she went to visit Tomas, Anna meets Vronsky in curious circumstances: they are at the railway station when someone is run over by a train. At the end of the novel, Anna throws herself under a train. This symmetrical composition-the same motif appears at the beginning and at the end-may seem quite "novelistic" to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on condition that you refrain from reading such notions as "fictive," "fabricated," and "untrue to life" into the word "novelistic." Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion. (2.11.3)

    This is a hidden justification of the narrator's attempt to use a fictional novel and fictional characters to explore real ideas. Just because my characters are fake, he seems to be saying, doesn't mean that they aren't a completely accurate reflection of real life. His novel may be intricately structured and full of artistry – but so is life, he says.

    Sabina said, "Unintentional beauty. Yes. Another way of putting it might be 'beauty by mistake.' Before beauty disappears entirely from the earth, it will go on existing for a while by mistake. 'Beauty by mistake'-the final phase in the history of beauty."

    And she recalled her first mature painting, which came into being because some red paint had dripped on it by mistake. Yes, her paintings were based on "beauty by mistake," and New York was the secret but authentic homeland of her painting. (3.5.12-13)

    Here we see a connection between beauty and fortuity. With Tereza, we saw that our sense of beauty is what allows us to recognize fortuitous occurrences. Now, with Sabina, we see that fortuity is often the source of beauty.

    He was about to offer them a few francs for the secret address when suddenly he felt he lacked the strength to do it. His grief had broken him utterly. He understood nothing, had no idea what had happened; all he knew was that he had been waiting for it to happen ever since he met Sabina. What must be must be. Franz did not oppose it. (3.9.14)

    Look at the way Kundera weaves the two storylines together with a common philosophy. We have seen Tomas struggle with the idea of es muss sein with regard to his relationship with Tereza, and now Franz applies the same idea – what must be – to his relationship with Sabina.

    What was important was the golden footprint, the magic footprint she had left on his life and no one could ever remove. Just before disappearing from his horizon, she had slipped him Hercules' broom, and he had used it to sweep everything he despised out of his life. A sudden happiness, a feeling of bliss, the joy that came of freedom and a new life – these were the gifts she had left him. (3.9.18)

    Franz has used this "broom" to rid his life of the burdens that weighed him down. Sabina has shown him – by leaving him – how to take pleasure in lightness, rather than in weight.

    When we want to give expression to a dramatic situation in our lives, we tend to use metaphors of heaviness. We say that something has become a great burden to us. We either bear the burden or fail and go down with it, we struggle with it, win or lose. And Sabina-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)

    This is a very important passage in the novel. We've just seen that Franz, burden-free at last, revels in the sweet lightness of being. But Sabina, met with the same freedom, is tormented by it. The difference between the two has to do primarily their strength. Franz thinks that love means renouncing strength and never uses his strength on Sabina. She finds him weak. But Sabina thinks that to love is to dominate – she uses her strength. When Kundera refers to Sabina "and her lot," he refers to the camp of the strong. It is the strong who find the lightness of being to be unbearable, while the weak, like Franz, are enchanted by it.

    Only the most naive of questions are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence.) (4.6.7)

    This is a moment in the story where we can see Kundera talking to his readers through his novel. This is an accurate reflection of his own philosophy, and clearly the types of questions he discusses here are the types of questions explored in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

    She was all that mattered to him. She, born of six fortuities, she, the blossom sprung from the chief surgeon's sciatica, she, the reverse side of all his "Es muss sein!"-she was the only thing he cared about. (5.14.17)

    Tereza is more important to Tomas precisely because she was born of six fortuities. Because she came about by chance and not out of necessity by es muss sein, Tereza and his love for Tereza are voluntary. Tomas chose her in a way that he did not choose his desire to womanize nor his medical profession (both of these were part of his es muss sein and are therefore beyond his control).

  • Sex

    Let me return to this dream. Its horror did not begin with Tomas's first pistol shot; it was horrifying from the outset. Marching naked in formation with a group of naked women was for Tereza the quintessential image of horror. When she lived at home, her mother forbade her to lock the bathroom door. What she meant by her injunction was: Your body is just like all other bodies; you have no right to shame; you have no reason to hide something that exists in millions of identical copies. In her mother's world all bodies were the same and marched behind one another in formation. (2.15.2)

    We can understand why Tomas's infidelities hurt Tereza so much; he makes her just one of any number of women. We can also understand why Tomas is the one holding the gun in this dream. He is the one who forces Tereza to see herself as a naked woman among dozens of others.

    Because he was the one who sent Tereza to join them. That was what the dream was meant to tell Tomas, what Tereza was unable to tell him herself. She had come to him to escape her mother's world, a world where all bodies were equal. She had come to him to make her body unique, irreplaceable. But he, too, had drawn an equal sign between her and the rest of them: he kissed them all alike, stroked them alike, made no, absolutely no distinction between Tereza's body and the other bodies. He had sent her back into the world she tried to escape, sent her to march naked with the other naked women. (2.16.7)

    But remember that Tomas firmly places Tereza in a different realm than the women he has sex with. She is the only one he loves, and she is the only one he actually sleeps besides. He does make her special, but Tereza does not recognize this.

    She yearned for the two of them to merge into a hermaphrodite. Then the other women's bodies would be their playthings. (2.19.4)

    By repeating Sabina's letter aloud to Tomas in bed, Tereza tries to put herself with Tomas in a position of power. By fantasizing about her and Tomas as a hermaphrodite, she establishes herself as distinct from the other women (who are now mere "playthings").

    When she had been at it for almost an hour, she suddenly said, "What would you say to some nude shots?"

    "Nude shots?" Sabina laughed.

    "Yes," said Tereza, repeating her proposal more boldly, "nude shots." (2.21.6)

    We know that nudity represents humiliation to Tereza. By asking Sabina to take off her clothes, Tereza asserts power over her. But Tereza ends up taking off her own clothes and allowing Sabina to photograph her naked. We can explain this if we go back a few pages to Kundera's description of vertigo, the desire to fall. Tereza possesses a secret desire to be humiliated in just this way.

    He often stopped in for a visit, but only as a friend, never as a lover. If he made love to her in her Geneva studio, he would be going from one woman to the other, from wife to mistress and back in a single day, and because in Geneva husband and wife sleep together in the French style, in the same bed, he would be going from the bed of one woman to the bed of another in the space of several hours. And that, he felt, would humiliate both mistress and wife and, in the end, himself as well. (3.1.2)

    It's interesting that Franz, like Tomas, has his own set of rules and ideas of what is just, despite the fact that they're both cheating on their wives. Both men are fully convinced that, if the obey their own set of rules, what they are doing isn't wrong.

    She was a modest girl and not particularly pretty, but she admired Franz in the way Franz had only recently admired Sabina. He did not find it unpleasant. (3.9.21)

    There really seem to be no equal sexual relationships in this novel. One person always has the upper hand.

    The girl with the glasses could barely suppress her yawns, while Franz smiled blissfully at her side. The longer he looked at the pleasing gray-haired man with the admirable index finger, the more he saw him as a secret messenger, an angelic intermediary between him and his goddess. He closed his eyes and dreamed. He closed his eyes as he had closed them on Sabina's body in fifteen European hotels and one in America. (3.11.11)

    Ah – now we can understand why Franz closed his eyes while he was making love with Sabina. He wasn't interested in the Sabina who stood in front of him. Rather, Franz was worshipping his idea of what Sabina represents.

    She had taken many pictures of those young women against a backdrop of tanks. How she had admired them! And now these same women were bumping into her, meanly and spitefully. Instead of flags, they held umbrellas, but they held them with the same pride. They were ready to fight as obstinately against a foreign army as against an umbrella that refused to move out of their way. (4.3.6)

    This passage reiterates the parallels the novel draws between political power and sexual power.

    Standing there in the anteroom, she tried to withstand the strong desire to burst out crying in his presence. She knew that her failure to withstand it would have ruinous consequences. She would fall in love with him. (4.19.3)

    Tereza just can't do lightness. Just as she failed at flirtation, she fails at casual sex. Tomas's lifestyle is not for her.

    So it was a desire not for pleasure (the pleasure came as an extra, a bonus) but for possession of the world (slitting open the outstretched body of the world with his scalpel) that sent him in pursuit of women. (5.9.12)

    For Tomas, sex is necessarily about taking control. What does it mean for Tereza?

  • Love

    …seemed in a good mood, even a little boisterous, and tried to make him think she had just happened to drop in, things had just worked out that way: she was in Prague on business, perhaps (at this point she became rather vague) to find a job. (1.4.2)

    This is an important parenthetical because it hints that Tereza exists, as the narrator later suggests, to offer up her life to Tomas. He is the sole reason she has returned to Prague, and she is already dependent on him.

    Again it occurred to him that Tereza was a child put in a pitch-daubed bulrush basket and sent downstream. He couldn't very well let a basket with a child in it float down a stormy river! If the Pharaoh's daughter hadn't snatched the basket carrying little Moses from the waves, there would have been no Old Testament, no civilization as we now know it! How many ancient myths begin with the rescue of an abandoned child! If Polybus hadn't taken in the young Oedipus, Sophocles wouldn't have written his most beautiful tragedy! (1.4.12)

    For Tomas, Tereza means responsibility. Their roles in their relationship are established early on and remain largely unchanged throughout the course of the novel. Years later, Tomas still feels as though he has to take care of Tereza.

    For seven years he had lived bound to her, his every step subject to her scrutiny. She might as well have chained iron balls to his ankles. Suddenly his step was much lighter. He soared. He had entered Parmenides' magic field: he was enjoying the sweet lightness of being.

    (Did he feel like phoning Sabina in Geneva? Contacting one or another of the women he had met during his several months in Zurich? No, not in the least. Perhaps he sensed that any woman would make his memory of Tereza unbearably painful.) (1.14.7-8)

    Again we see that an important idea is tacked on in the parenthetical. Tomas would like to think he's enjoying the sweet lightness of being, but we can already see that there is something unbearable about it. His love for Tereza is weight, but it is the best thing for him.

    We all reject out of hand the idea that the love of our life may be something light or weightless; we presume our love is what must be, that without it our life would no longer be the same; we feel that Beethoven himself, gloomy and awe-inspiring, is playing the "Es muss sein!" to our own great love.

    Tomas often thought of Tereza's remark about his friend Z. and came 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). (1.17.4-5)

    Here Kundera complicates the idea of lightness and weight. One the one hand, Tomas's love for Tereza is weighty, in that she asks him for commitment and makes him responsible for her. But if his love lacks es muss sein, it is also light.

    And at some point, he realized to his great surprise that he was not particularly unhappy. Sabina's physical presence was much less important than he had suspected. […]

    Actually, he had always preferred the unreal to the real. Just as he felt better at demonstrations (which, as I have pointed out, are all playacting and dreams) than in a lecture hall full of students, so he was happier with Sabina the invisible goddess than the Sabina who had accompanied him throughout the world and whose love he constantly feared losing. (3.9.18-19)

    Franz was more in love with the idea of Sabina than Sabina herself. He was intoxicated by what she represented to him, by the Grand March of history that she symbolized. It makes sense that he doesn't need her around physically in order to love her. As we see, it's easier for him to carry on a relationship with her when she's gone.

    He told her he lived nearby. He was an engineer and had stopped off on his way home from work the other day by sheer chance. (4.10.12)

    Just as she did when she first met Tomas, Tereza is on the look out for fortuities to endorse a potential romantic encounter. Her sense of beauty is still acute – or is she misreading this scenario?

    Before long, the crow stopped flapping its wings, and gave no more than the twitch of a broken, mangled leg. Tereza refused to be separated from it. She could have been keeping vigil over a dying sister. In the end, however, she did step into the kitchen for a bite to eat.

    When she returned, the crow was dead. (5.21.8-9)

    This scene illustrates the dependence brought on by loving someone else. Tereza is similarly dependent on Tomas.

    They started back to the car in silence. She was thinking about how all things and people seemed to go about in disguise. An old Czech town was covered with Russian names. Czechs taking pictures of the invasion had unconsciously worked for the secret police. The man who sent her to die had worn a mask of Tomas's face over his own. The spy played the part of an engineer, and the engineer tried to play the part of the man from Petrin. The emblem of the book in his flat proved a sham designed to lead her astray.

    Recalling the book she had held in her hand there, she had a sudden flash of insight that made her cheeks burn red. What had been the sequence of events? The engineer announced he would bring in some coffee. She walked over to the bookshelves and took down Sophocles' Oedipus. Then the engineer came back. But without the coffee! (4.26.1)

    This passage emphasizes the parallels between the political/military/historical content of the novel and its love stories. We start to see love and sex as a war with its own enemies, allies, spies, secret police, tactics, victories, losses, surveillance, infiltration, advances, retreats, and secret codes.

    But in Tomas's country, doctors are state employees, and the state may or may not release them from its service. The official with whom Tomas negotiated his resignation knew him by name and reputation and tried to talk him into staying on. Tomas suddenly realized that he was not at all sure he had made the proper choice, but he felt bound to it by then by an unspoken vow of fidelity, so he stood fast. And that is how he became a window washer. (5.6.17)

    "Fidelity" is an important word in this passage. Tomas, who has never even considered being faithful sexually to his wife, feels bound to an idea by a sense of fidelity.

    The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful. From the time he met Tereza, no woman had the right to leave the slightest impression on that part of his brain. (5.12.6)

    So Tomas is faithful, in an important way, to Tereza. It's just that his brand of fidelity is an unusual one.

  • Identity

    It would be senseless for the author to try to convince the reader that his characters once actually lived. They were not born of a mother's womb; they were born of a stimulating phrase or two or from a basic situation. Tomas was born of the saying "Einmal ist keinmal." Tereza was born of the rumbling of a stomach. (2.1.1)

    Right away we start to associate Tomas with the cerebral and Tereza with the physical. Tereza, in her disgust for the body, rebels against the very nature and origin of her character. She longs to leave the physical behind and enter the realm of the spiritual.

    And so the man who called to her was simultaneously a stranger and a member of the secret brotherhood. He called to her in a kind voice, and Tereza felt her soul rushing up to the surface through her blood vessels and pores to show itself to him. (2.8.6)

    Tereza is attracted to Tomas because he calls up her soul, the source of her identity. Her fear of infidelity, then, is rooted not so much in jealousy as in her loss of identity. Tomas turns her into one of many, and not an individual.

    The ban on making love with his painter-mistress in Geneva was actually a self-inflicted punishment for having married another woman. (3.1.17)

    At this point in the novel, Kundera hasn't explicitly revealed that Franz's mistress is Sabina, but he's continually hinted at it. Why has he hidden her identity from us this way? What narrative purpose could that serve? Check out "Narrator Point of View" for an interesting discussion on the topic.

    The Montparnasse Cemetery was the closest. It was all tiny houses, miniature chapels over each grave. Sabina could not understand why the dead would want to have imitation palaces built over them. The cemetery was vanity transmogrified into stone. Instead of growing more sensible in death, the inhabitants of the cemetery were sillier than they had been in life. (3.10.8)

    This is another example of the kitsch that plagues Sabina. The graves are over-the-top and excessively sentimental.

    Of course. Even if Tereza were completely unlike Tereza, her soul inside her would be the same and look on in amazement at what was happening to her body. (4.6.4-5)

    It's interesting that Tereza can so easily draw a line between body and soul, but cannot understand Tomas's division between physical and emotional cheating.

    She went home and forced herself to eat a stand-up lunch in the kitchen. (4.7.1)

    This is a great example of the antagonistic relationship that Tereza has with her body.

    But then it occurred to her that she was actually being sent to him by Tomas. Hadn't he told her time and again that love and sexuality had nothing in common? Well, she was merely testing his words, confirming them. She could almost hear him say, "I understand you. I know what you want. I've taken care of everything. You'll see when you get up there." (4.15.4)

    It's interesting that Tereza equates being sent to the engineer with being sent to her death in her dream. Tereza's commitment to weight and rejection of lightness is so much a part of her identity that to break with her lifestyle choice would be tantamount to death.

    What is unique about the "I" hides itself exactly in what is unimaginable about a person. All we are able to imagine is what makes everyone like everyone else, what people have in common. The individual "I" is what differs from the common stock, that is, what cannot be guessed at or calculated, what must be unveiled, uncovered, conquered. (5.9.5)

    It's interesting that Tomas seeks to find an individual's "I" through sex. Tereza, on the other hand, believes her "I" to be her soul, buried inside her body. But remember that Tereza, too, discovers her "I" while making love to the engineer.

    "Tomorrow?" And suddenly Tomas recalled the portly policeman handing him the denunciation of none other than this tall editor with the big chin. Everyone was trying to make him sign statements he had not written himself. (5.13.54)

    In a way, Tereza is asking Tomas to sign something he did not write, by asking that she be the only woman in his life. She's pushing him to sign up for a lifestyle that he would never choose on his own.

    What remains of the dying population of Cambodia?

    One large photograph of an American actress holding an Asian child in her arms.

    What remains of Tomas?

    An inscription reading he wanted the kingdom of god on earth.


    What remains of Franz?

    An inscription reading a return after long wanderings. (6.29.1-8)

    All the characters in the Unbearable Lightness of Being are fundamentally misunderstood after their death. Their identities are boiled down to a single phrase that not only fails to describe them, but misrepresents them nonetheless.

  • Power

    He had complete control over her sleep: she dozed off at the second he chose.


    Once, when he had just lulled her to sleep but she had gone no farther than dream's antechamber and was therefore still responsive to him, he said to her, "Good-bye, I'm going now." "Where?" she asked in her sleep. "Away," he answered sternly. "Then I'm going with you," she said, sitting up in bed. "No, you can't. I'm going away for good," he said, going out into the hall. (1.6.5-7)

    Here we see the control that Tomas has over Tereza, both emotionally and physically. What do you make of his attempt to leave Tereza while she slept? Was he really going to leave? Is he just curious to see what she'll do?

    Photography was nothing but a way of getting at "something higher" and living beside Tomas. (2.25.5)

    We see that Tereza feels herself inferior to Tomas in many ways. In order to live beside him, she first has to elevate herself to his intellectual and cultural level.

    Thinking in Zurich of those days, she no longer felt any aversion to the man. The word "weak" no longer sounded like a verdict. Any man confronted with superior strength is weak, even if he has an athletic body like Dubcek's. The very weakness that at the time had seemed unbearable and repulsive, the weakness that had driven Tereza and Tomas from the country, suddenly attracted her. She realized that she belonged among the weak, in the camp of the weak, in the country of the weak, and that she had to be faithful to them precisely because they were weak and gasped for breath in the middle of sentences. (2.26.4)

    Tereza's attraction to the weak is a form of the vertigo that the narrator discusses in Part 2. Her desire to submit herself completely to Tomas is a manifestation of this tendency towards self-degradation. It's interesting that Sabina, who would on all other accounts seem to be the complete opposite of Tereza, shares the same desire for self-degradation. This shared, female desire is expressed in the scene in which they take nude pictures of each other.

    "I want you to be old. Ten years older. Twenty years older!"

    What she meant was: I want you to be weak. As weak as I am. (2.26.9-10)

    A few pages earlier, Tereza expressed a desire to bring herself up to Tomas's level – now she wants to pull him down to hers. Both Tomas and Tereza acknowledge the essential inequality of their relationship.

    She longed to do something that would prevent her from turning back to Tomas. She longed to destroy brutally the past seven years of her life. It was vertigo. A heady, insuperable longing to fall.

    We might also call vertigo the intoxication of the weak. Aware of his weakness, a man decides to give in rather than stand up to it. He is drunk with weakness, wishes to grow even weaker, wishes to fall down in the middle of the main square in front of everybody, wishes to be down, lower than down. (2.28.2)

    What is the source of Tereza's vertigo?

    Sabina's exhibition the year before had not been particularly successful, so Marie-Claude did not set great store by Sabina's favor. Sabina, however, had every reason to set store by Marie-Claude's. Yet that was not at all evident from her behavior.

    Yes, Franz saw it plainly: Marie-Claude had taken advantage of the occasion to make clear to Sabina (and others) what the real balance of power was between the two of them. (3.6.27)

    Of course, Sabina has all the power in the world because she's sleeping with Marie-Claude's husband.

    She knew, of course, that she was being supremely unfair, that Franz was the best man she had ever had – he was intelligent, he understood her paintings, he was handsome and good – but the more she thought about it, the more she longed to ravish his intelligence, defile his kindheartedness, and violate his powerless strength. (3.8.10)

    Moments ago, Sabina wished that Franz would subjugate her and take control himself. But because he is not capable of doing so, Sabina steps up and takes control herself. If she cannot be subjugated, then she will be subjugate Franz.

    Tereza suddenly recalled the first days of the invasion. People in every city and town had pulled down the street signs; sign posts had disappeared. Overnight, the country had become nameless. For seven days, Russian troops wandered the countryside, not knowing where they were. The officers searched for newspaper offices, for television and radio stations to occupy, but could not find them. Whenever they asked, they would get either a shrug of the shoulders or false names and directions.

    Hindsight now made that anonymity seem quite dangerous to the country. […] The past that Tereza had gone there to find had turned out to be confiscated. (4.25.5-6)

    Remember that Tereza attempted to fight the Russians by photographing the invasion, and ended up helping them accidentally by documenting those who rebelled. The same thing has happened here; the Czechs ended up hurting themselves in their attempts to fight back.

    If excitement is a mechanism our Creator uses for His own amusement, love is something that belongs to us alone and enables us to flee the Creator. Love is our freedom. Love lies beyond "Es muss sein!" (5.22.6)

    But sex does not lie beyond es muss sein. Remember that Tomas's womanizing has been called his personal es muss sein. Although Tomas's sexuality is characterized by the power he exerts over woman, he is powerless against his own womanizing.

    No sooner had he hung up than he regretted his decision. True, he had taken care of his earthly mistress, but he had neglected his unearthly love. Wasn't Cambodia the same as Sabina's country? A country occupied by its neighbor's Communist army! A country that had felt the brunt of Russia's fist! All at once, Franz felt that his half-forgotten friend had contacted him at Sabina's secret bidding.

    Heavenly bodies know all and see all. If he went on the march, Sabina would gaze down on him enraptured; she would understand that he had remained faithful to her. (6.14.5-6)

    Look at the amount of power that Sabina exerts over Franz so long after they parted ways.

  • Language and Communication

    And so the man who called to her was simultaneously a stranger and a member of the secret brotherhood. He called to her in a kind voice, and Tereza felt her soul rushing up to the surface through her blood vessels and pores to show itself to him. (2.8.6)

    Tomas's call to Tereza ends up being a sort of miscommunication in itself. He makes her feel unique and individual, yet she is one of many women for him.

    For the first few seconds, she was afraid he would throw her out because of the crude noises she was making, but then he put his arms around her. She was grateful to him for ignoring her rumbles, and kissed him passionately, her eyes misting. Before the first minute was up, they were making love. She screamed while making love. She had a fever by then. She had come down with the flu. The nozzle of the hose supplying oxygen to the lungs was stuffed and red.

    When she traveled to Prague a second time, it was with a heavy suitcase. (2.12.3-4)

    Notice that this is the second time we've gotten the story of Tereza's first sexual encounter with Tomas. First it was through Tomas's eyes, and now we see the same situation through Tereza's. Kundera makes a point to use the same words and phrases in certain key places. For example, through both Tomas's and Tereza's eyes, the suitcase retains its weight. Consider this in light of the section called "Words Misunderstood," when the narrator talks about the different motifs in the lives of Sabina and Franz. Sabina and Franz are at odds because words mean different things to them; but Tereza and Tomas are on the same page. This small example – the weight of Tereza's suitcase – shows that they both associate Tereza's arrival in Prague with weight and responsibility. Compare this to the stories that we see through Sabina's and then through Franz's eyes, and you'll see much less repetition of words and phrases for that ill-matched couple.

    That was not the thing to say. A man with artificially waved gray hair pointed a long index finger at her. "That's no way to talk. You're all responsible for what happened. You, too. How did you oppose the Communist regime? All you did was paint pictures. ..." (3.4.2)

    But this is how Sabina opposed the regime – through her art. For her, painting is a mode of communication. Of course, for Franz, art (in the form of music) is a way of blocking out communication, it is "the anti-word." Yet another instance of misunderstood words between them.

    Didn't they then at last agree on something?

    No. (3.5.15-16)

    How are Franz and Sabina still together if their relationship is characterized by all these misunderstandings?

    He started explaining his new approach to her, a combination of photography and oil, but he had scarcely got through three sentences when Marie-Anne began whistling a tune. The painter was speaking slowly and with great concentration and did not hear the whistling.

    "Will you tell me why you're whistling? " Franz whispered.

    "Because I don't like to hear people talk about politics," she answered out loud. (3.6.12-4)

    This is an interesting passage, and could be taken a few different ways. The painter is talking about art, and Marie-Anne thinks he is talking about politics. It's possible she's just not listening. Or it could be that this is another example of words misunderstood, as we've just seen with Sabina and Franz. It's also a reminder that art and politics are not totally separate realms in this novel. Remember that Sabina uses art as a way to rebel against kitsch.

    She thought about that stone all day. Why had it horrified her so?

    She answered herself: When graves are covered with stones, the dead can no longer get out.

    But the dead can't get out anyway! What difference does it make whether they're covered with soil or stones? (3.10.10-3)

    This is an interesting passage in light of Tereza's dream of being buried alive in the ground. Again we see that there are interesting connections between the different story lines in Unbearable Lightness.

    The student-mistress was much younger than Sabina, and the musical composition of her life had scarcely been outlined; she was grateful to Franz for the motifs he gave her to insert. Franz's Grand March was now her creed as well. Music was now her Dionysian intoxication. They often went dancing together. They lived in truth, and nothing they did was secret. (3.11.9)

    The narrator first introduced Kafka's phrase "living in truth" toward the start of Part 3, and asked what it meant. Now that we've arrived at the end of Part 3, do we have a definition of what it means to live in truth?

    The girl with the glasses could barely suppress her yawns, while Franz smiled blissfully at her side. The longer he looked at the pleasing gray-haired man with the admirable index finger, the more he saw him as a secret messenger, an angelic intermediary between him and his goddess. He closed his eyes and dreamed. He closed his eyes as he had closed them on Sabina's body in fifteen European hotels and one in America. (3.11.11)

    How interesting that we end a segment of the novel devoted to misunderstandings on communication between Sabina and Franz. Is the "secret message" that Franz believes his goddess is sending to him genuine, or is he misinterpreting and misunderstanding her yet again?

    I have said before that metaphors are dangerous. Love begins with a metaphor. Which is to say, love begins at the point when a woman enters her first word into our poetic memory. (5.12.9)

    Think about this in the context of Franz and Sabina's "Dictionary of Misunderstood Words."

    Apparently hoping to counteract the discordant note, the editor said, by way of apology, "But think of all the people your article helped!"

    From childhood, Tomas had associated the words "helping people" with one thing and one thing only: medicine. How could an article help people? (5.14.6)

    Just like Franz and Sabina, Tomas and the editor are unable to communicate because they define words differently. Miscommunication is an idea that pervades all aspects of the novel – the romantic, sexual, political, and historical.

  • Time

    She loved to walk down the street with a book under her arm. It had the same significance for her as an elegant cane for the dandy a century ago. It differentiated her from others.

    (Comparing the book to the elegant cane of the dandy is not absolutely precise. A dandy's cane did more than make him different; it made him modern and up to date. The book made Tereza different, but old-fashioned. Of course, she was too young to see how old-fashioned she looked to others. The young men walking by with transistor radios pressed to their ears seemed silly to her. It never occurred to her that they were modern.) (2.8.5)

    It is Tereza's anachronistic ways that make her so incompatible with Tomas. One could argue that his take on the separation of sex and love is a modern one, while her commitment to fidelity and her belief that the two cannot be separated is more old-fashioned.

    Yes, the pictures of the invasion were something else again. She had not done them for Tomas. She had done them out of passion. But not passion for photography. She had done them out of passionate hatred. The situation would never recur. And these photographs, which she had made out of passion, were the ones nobody wanted because they were out of date. Only cactuses had perennial appeal. And cactuses were of no interest to her. (2.25.8)

    This brings us back to the problem Kundera introduced early in the novel: the lightness of events that occur only once. By photographing the Prague invasion, Tereza means to preserve it in time so that it can be judged, so that the Russians must take some responsibility for it, and so that it carries weight, even though it does not recur.

    Karenin was not overjoyed by the move to Switzerland. Karenin hated change. Dog time cannot be plotted along a straight line; 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)

    If events recur for Karenin, does that mean they take on more weight than the events that, for humans, occur only once?

    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, and all the meanings flowed through the bowler hat like water through a riverbed. I might call it Heraclitus' ("You can't step twice into the same river") riverbed: the bowler hat was a bed through which each time Sabina saw another river flow, another semantic river: each time the same object would give rise to a new meaning, though all former meanings would resonate (like an echo, like a parade of echoes) together with the new one. Each new experience would re-sound, each time enriching the harmony. The reason why Tomas and Sabina were touched by the sight of the bowler hat in a Zurich hotel and made love almost in tears was that its black presence was not merely a reminder of their love games but also a memento of Sabina's father and of her grandfather, who lived in a century without airplanes and cars. (3.2.9)

    The bowler hat carries weight primarily because it has recurred. This is exactly why motifs give meaning to an individual's life – because they recur over and over again. This is how we are able to give our lives meaning despite the fact that our life occurs only once.

    Let there be no mistake: Tereza did not wish to take revenge on Tomas; she merely wished to find a way out of the maze. She knew that she had become a burden to him: she took things too seriously, turning everything into a tragedy, and failed to grasp the lightness and amusing insignificance of physical love. How she wished she could learn lightness! She yearned for someone to help her out of her anachronistic shell. (4.8.4)

    Tereza's inability to embrace lightness is presented as anachronistic. The modern lifestyle seems from the narrator's perspective to be characterized by the lifestyles of Tomas and Sabina.

    Tereza could think of nothing but the possibility that the engineer had been sent by the police. And who was that strange boy who drank himself silly and told her he loved her? It was because of him that the bald police spy had launched into her and the engineer stood up for her. So all three had been playing parts in a prearranged scenario meant to soften her up for the seduction! (4.24.9)

    Again we see how the political and historical content of Unbearable Lightness is interwoven with the personal, romantic, and sexual. The lives of these characters are the product of their surroundings. This story could not have played out and these characters could not have existed in any other time or setting. There is a degree of irony in Tereza's belief that she is anachronistic, because she is molded by the times in which she lives.

    She went outside and set off in the direction of the embankment. She wanted to see the Vltava. She wanted to stand on its banks and look long and hard into its waters, because the sight of the flow was soothing and healing. The river flowed from century to century, and human affairs play themselves out on its banks. Play themselves out to be forgotten the next day, while the river flows on. (4.29.2)

    Think about this in the context of Kundera's opening two chapters, in which he discusses the idea of eternal return.

    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)

    The narrator begins Unbearable Lightness with the claim that, if lives happen only once, they have no weight. We cannot judge our actions nor take responsibility for them because we can never compare them with alternative outcomes. But here, the narrator explores those alternative outcomes by creating characters that are his own "unrealized possibilities." In doing so, he gives his life weight.

    Several days later, he was struck by another thought […]: Some-where out in space there was a planet where all people would be born again. They would be fully aware of the life they had spent on earth and of all the experience they had amassed here.


    And perhaps there were yet more and more planets, where mankind would be born one degree (one life) more mature.


    Only from the perspective of such a utopia is it possible to use the concepts of pessimism and optimism with full justification: an optimist is someone who thinks that on planet number five the history of mankind will be less bloody. A pessimist is one who thinks otherwise. (5.16.1-6)

    Kundera explores the idea of eternal return in this novel. Is his view ultimately optimistic or pessimistic?

    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)

    Given this definition, are any of the characters in Unbearable Lightness capable of being happy?

  • Betrayal

    "You seem to be turning into the theme of all my paintings," she said. "The meeting of two worlds. A double exposure. Showing through the outline of Tomas the libertine, in-credibly, the face of a romantic lover. Or, the other way, through a Tristan, always thinking of his Tereza, I see the beautiful, betrayed world of the libertine." (1.10.9)

    Sabina's paintings draw some early connections between the love stories of the novel and its political backdrop. We later hear her explain the double world of her paintings as an ideology that betrays Communism, or rather, any and all forms of kitsch.

    When she told her French friends about it, they were amazed. "You mean you don't want to fight the occupation of your country?" She would have liked to tell them 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. But she knew she would never be able to make them understand. Embarrassed, she changed the subject. (3.5.8)

    This "pervasive evil" turns out to be kitsch, which Sabina despises because it does not allow for individuality. It's interesting that both Sabina and Tereza vehemently seek to establish their individuality. For two such different women, they actually seem to have quite a bit in common (think also of their shared tendency toward vertigo and self-degradation).

    Franz knew his wife didn't care whether the pendant was ugly or not. An object was ugly if she willed it ugly, beautiful if she willed it beautiful. Pendants worn by her friends were a priori beautiful. And even if she did find them ugly, she would never say so, because flattery had long since become second nature to her. (3.6.22)

    Marie-Claude does not have the "sense of beauty" that Kundera praises and that we see illustrated in Tereza. Tereza uses her sense of beauty to recognize fortuity around her and construct the motifs that give her life weight. Rather than try to recognize beauty, Marie-Claude declares what she wants to be beautiful and what she wants to be ugly.

    From that time on she had known that beauty is a world betrayed. The only way we can encounter it is if its persecutors have overlooked it somewhere. Beauty hides behind the scenes of the May Day parade. If we want to find it, we must demolish the scenery. (3.7.14)

    Sabina's endless string of betrayals might not be about politics or power at all – it is simply about aesthetics. Her life history is the story of the pursuit of beauty. She is an artist, then, in the true sense of the word.

    Sabina felt emptiness all around her. What if that emptiness was the goal of all her betrayals?

    Naturally she had not realized it until now. How could she have? The goals we pursue are always veiled. [..] The thing that gives our every move its meaning is always totally unknown to us. Sabina was unaware of the goal that lay behind her longing to betray. The unbearable lightness of being-was that the goal? Her departure from Geneva brought her considerably closer to it. (3.10.4-5)

    How can something unbearable be the goal of Sabina's betrayals? Why would she pursue something that makes her unhappy? Is this the real reason behind her betrayals, or is there something more going on here?

    Tomas turned off the radio and said, "Every country has its secret police. But a secret police that broadcasts its tapes over the radio-there's something that could happen only in Prague, something absolutely without precedent!" (4.2.4)

    This is an interesting topic coming off of the issue raised in Part 3 – what it means to live in truth. Remember that Sabina believed one could only live honestly in a private sphere. Franz believed the opposite. What does it mean to live in truth in a world where privacy is forever being violated?

    "I know a precedent," said Tereza. "When I was fourteen I kept a secret diary. I was terrified that someone might read it so I kept it hidden in the attic. Mother sniffed it out. One day at dinner, while we were all hunched over our soup, she took it out of her pocket and said, 'Listen carefully now, everybody!' And after every sentence, she burst out laughing. They all laughed so hard they couldn't eat." (4.2.5)

    Think about what a word like betrayal means to Tereza as opposed to Sabina. This passage is rather carefully placed after a long segment discussing Sabina's understanding of and attraction to betrayal.

    When a private talk over a bottle of wine is broadcast on the radio, what can it mean but that the world is turning into a concentration camp?

    […] A concentration camp is the complete obliteration of privacy. (4.4.2-3)

    This is presented through Tereza's eyes. Because she values privacy, we can see why Tomas's affairs bother her so much. In a way, by extending his sexual life to so many other women, he makes he and Tereza's private life public. He violates her privacy.

    Oddly enough, the touch of his hand immediately erased what remained of her anxiety. For the engineer's hand referred to her body, and she realized that she (her soul) was not at all involved, only her body, her body alone. The body that had betrayed her and that she had sent out into the world among other bodies. (4.16.12)

    Tereza feels that her body betrayed her by failing to become the only body in Tomas's life. Her actions now are an attempt at paying it back – at betraying her body – by rejecting it as something separate from her soul and subjecting it to objectification at the hands of the engineer.

    It is my feeling that Tomas had long been secretly irritated by the stern, aggressive, solemn "Es muss sein!" and that he harbored a deep desire to follow the spirit of Parmenides and make heavy go to light. Remember that at one point in his life he broke completely with his first wife and his son and that he was relieved when both his parents broke with him. 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)

    This is in line with Tereza's vertigo and Sabina's longing for betrayal. All of these characters in some way harbor a self-destructive impulse that takes its form in self-betrayal.