Study Guide

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Identity

By Milan Kundera

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.

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