Study Guide

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Power

By Milan Kundera

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He had complete control over her sleep: she dozed off at the second he chose.


Once, when he had just lulled her to sleep but she had gone no farther than dream's antechamber and was therefore still responsive to him, he said to her, "Good-bye, I'm going now." "Where?" she asked in her sleep. "Away," he answered sternly. "Then I'm going with you," she said, sitting up in bed. "No, you can't. I'm going away for good," he said, going out into the hall. (1.6.5-7)

Here we see the control that Tomas has over Tereza, both emotionally and physically. What do you make of his attempt to leave Tereza while she slept? Was he really going to leave? Is he just curious to see what she'll do?

Photography was nothing but a way of getting at "something higher" and living beside Tomas. (2.25.5)

We see that Tereza feels herself inferior to Tomas in many ways. In order to live beside him, she first has to elevate herself to his intellectual and cultural level.

Thinking in Zurich of those days, she no longer felt any aversion to the man. The word "weak" no longer sounded like a verdict. Any man confronted with superior strength is weak, even if he has an athletic body like Dubcek's. The very weakness that at the time had seemed unbearable and repulsive, the weakness that had driven Tereza and Tomas from the country, suddenly attracted her. She realized that she belonged among the weak, in the camp of the weak, in the country of the weak, and that she had to be faithful to them precisely because they were weak and gasped for breath in the middle of sentences. (2.26.4)

Tereza's attraction to the weak is a form of the vertigo that the narrator discusses in Part 2. Her desire to submit herself completely to Tomas is a manifestation of this tendency towards self-degradation. It's interesting that Sabina, who would on all other accounts seem to be the complete opposite of Tereza, shares the same desire for self-degradation. This shared, female desire is expressed in the scene in which they take nude pictures of each other.

"I want you to be old. Ten years older. Twenty years older!"

What she meant was: I want you to be weak. As weak as I am. (2.26.9-10)

A few pages earlier, Tereza expressed a desire to bring herself up to Tomas's level – now she wants to pull him down to hers. Both Tomas and Tereza acknowledge the essential inequality of their relationship.

She longed to do something that would prevent her from turning back to Tomas. She longed to destroy brutally the past seven years of her life. It was vertigo. A heady, insuperable longing to fall.

We might also call vertigo the intoxication of the weak. Aware of his weakness, a man decides to give in rather than stand up to it. He is drunk with weakness, wishes to grow even weaker, wishes to fall down in the middle of the main square in front of everybody, wishes to be down, lower than down. (2.28.2)

What is the source of Tereza's vertigo?

Sabina's exhibition the year before had not been particularly successful, so Marie-Claude did not set great store by Sabina's favor. Sabina, however, had every reason to set store by Marie-Claude's. Yet that was not at all evident from her behavior.

Yes, Franz saw it plainly: Marie-Claude had taken advantage of the occasion to make clear to Sabina (and others) what the real balance of power was between the two of them. (3.6.27)

Of course, Sabina has all the power in the world because she's sleeping with Marie-Claude's husband.

She knew, of course, that she was being supremely unfair, that Franz was the best man she had ever had – he was intelligent, he understood her paintings, he was handsome and good – but the more she thought about it, the more she longed to ravish his intelligence, defile his kindheartedness, and violate his powerless strength. (3.8.10)

Moments ago, Sabina wished that Franz would subjugate her and take control himself. But because he is not capable of doing so, Sabina steps up and takes control herself. If she cannot be subjugated, then she will be subjugate Franz.

Tereza suddenly recalled the first days of the invasion. People in every city and town had pulled down the street signs; sign posts had disappeared. Overnight, the country had become nameless. For seven days, Russian troops wandered the countryside, not knowing where they were. The officers searched for newspaper offices, for television and radio stations to occupy, but could not find them. Whenever they asked, they would get either a shrug of the shoulders or false names and directions.

Hindsight now made that anonymity seem quite dangerous to the country. […] The past that Tereza had gone there to find had turned out to be confiscated. (4.25.5-6)

Remember that Tereza attempted to fight the Russians by photographing the invasion, and ended up helping them accidentally by documenting those who rebelled. The same thing has happened here; the Czechs ended up hurting themselves in their attempts to fight back.

If excitement is a mechanism our Creator uses for His own amusement, love is something that belongs to us alone and enables us to flee the Creator. Love is our freedom. Love lies beyond "Es muss sein!" (5.22.6)

But sex does not lie beyond es muss sein. Remember that Tomas's womanizing has been called his personal es muss sein. Although Tomas's sexuality is characterized by the power he exerts over woman, he is powerless against his own womanizing.

No sooner had he hung up than he regretted his decision. True, he had taken care of his earthly mistress, but he had neglected his unearthly love. Wasn't Cambodia the same as Sabina's country? A country occupied by its neighbor's Communist army! A country that had felt the brunt of Russia's fist! All at once, Franz felt that his half-forgotten friend had contacted him at Sabina's secret bidding.

Heavenly bodies know all and see all. If he went on the march, Sabina would gaze down on him enraptured; she would understand that he had remained faithful to her. (6.14.5-6)

Look at the amount of power that Sabina exerts over Franz so long after they parted ways.

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