Study Guide

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Sex

By Milan Kundera

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Let me return to this dream. Its horror did not begin with Tomas's first pistol shot; it was horrifying from the outset. Marching naked in formation with a group of naked women was for Tereza the quintessential image of horror. When she lived at home, her mother forbade her to lock the bathroom door. What she meant by her injunction was: Your body is just like all other bodies; you have no right to shame; you have no reason to hide something that exists in millions of identical copies. In her mother's world all bodies were the same and marched behind one another in formation. (2.15.2)

We can understand why Tomas's infidelities hurt Tereza so much; he makes her just one of any number of women. We can also understand why Tomas is the one holding the gun in this dream. He is the one who forces Tereza to see herself as a naked woman among dozens of others.

Because he was the one who sent Tereza to join them. That was what the dream was meant to tell Tomas, what Tereza was unable to tell him herself. She had come to him to escape her mother's world, a world where all bodies were equal. She had come to him to make her body unique, irreplaceable. But he, too, had drawn an equal sign between her and the rest of them: he kissed them all alike, stroked them alike, made no, absolutely no distinction between Tereza's body and the other bodies. He had sent her back into the world she tried to escape, sent her to march naked with the other naked women. (2.16.7)

But remember that Tomas firmly places Tereza in a different realm than the women he has sex with. She is the only one he loves, and she is the only one he actually sleeps besides. He does make her special, but Tereza does not recognize this.

She yearned for the two of them to merge into a hermaphrodite. Then the other women's bodies would be their playthings. (2.19.4)

By repeating Sabina's letter aloud to Tomas in bed, Tereza tries to put herself with Tomas in a position of power. By fantasizing about her and Tomas as a hermaphrodite, she establishes herself as distinct from the other women (who are now mere "playthings").

When she had been at it for almost an hour, she suddenly said, "What would you say to some nude shots?"

"Nude shots?" Sabina laughed.

"Yes," said Tereza, repeating her proposal more boldly, "nude shots." (2.21.6)

We know that nudity represents humiliation to Tereza. By asking Sabina to take off her clothes, Tereza asserts power over her. But Tereza ends up taking off her own clothes and allowing Sabina to photograph her naked. We can explain this if we go back a few pages to Kundera's description of vertigo, the desire to fall. Tereza possesses a secret desire to be humiliated in just this way.

He often stopped in for a visit, but only as a friend, never as a lover. If he made love to her in her Geneva studio, he would be going from one woman to the other, from wife to mistress and back in a single day, and because in Geneva husband and wife sleep together in the French style, in the same bed, he would be going from the bed of one woman to the bed of another in the space of several hours. And that, he felt, would humiliate both mistress and wife and, in the end, himself as well. (3.1.2)

It's interesting that Franz, like Tomas, has his own set of rules and ideas of what is just, despite the fact that they're both cheating on their wives. Both men are fully convinced that, if the obey their own set of rules, what they are doing isn't wrong.

She was a modest girl and not particularly pretty, but she admired Franz in the way Franz had only recently admired Sabina. He did not find it unpleasant. (3.9.21)

There really seem to be no equal sexual relationships in this novel. One person always has the upper hand.

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)

Ah – now we can understand why Franz closed his eyes while he was making love with Sabina. He wasn't interested in the Sabina who stood in front of him. Rather, Franz was worshipping his idea of what Sabina represents.

She had taken many pictures of those young women against a backdrop of tanks. How she had admired them! And now these same women were bumping into her, meanly and spitefully. Instead of flags, they held umbrellas, but they held them with the same pride. They were ready to fight as obstinately against a foreign army as against an umbrella that refused to move out of their way. (4.3.6)

This passage reiterates the parallels the novel draws between political power and sexual power.

Standing there in the anteroom, she tried to withstand the strong desire to burst out crying in his presence. She knew that her failure to withstand it would have ruinous consequences. She would fall in love with him. (4.19.3)

Tereza just can't do lightness. Just as she failed at flirtation, she fails at casual sex. Tomas's lifestyle is not for her.

So it was a desire not for pleasure (the pleasure came as an extra, a bonus) but for possession of the world (slitting open the outstretched body of the world with his scalpel) that sent him in pursuit of women. (5.9.12)

For Tomas, sex is necessarily about taking control. What does it mean for Tereza?

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