Study Guide

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Love

By Milan Kundera

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…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.

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