Study Guide

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Life, Consciousness, Existence

By Milan Kundera

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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).

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