Study Guide

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Betrayal

By Milan Kundera

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"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.

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