Study Guide

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Language and Communication

By Milan Kundera

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.

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