Study Guide

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Time

By Milan Kundera

Time

She loved to walk down the street with a book under her arm. It had the same significance for her as an elegant cane for the dandy a century ago. It differentiated her from others.

(Comparing the book to the elegant cane of the dandy is not absolutely precise. A dandy's cane did more than make him different; it made him modern and up to date. The book made Tereza different, but old-fashioned. Of course, she was too young to see how old-fashioned she looked to others. The young men walking by with transistor radios pressed to their ears seemed silly to her. It never occurred to her that they were modern.) (2.8.5)

It is Tereza's anachronistic ways that make her so incompatible with Tomas. One could argue that his take on the separation of sex and love is a modern one, while her commitment to fidelity and her belief that the two cannot be separated is more old-fashioned.

Yes, the pictures of the invasion were something else again. She had not done them for Tomas. She had done them out of passion. But not passion for photography. She had done them out of passionate hatred. The situation would never recur. And these photographs, which she had made out of passion, were the ones nobody wanted because they were out of date. Only cactuses had perennial appeal. And cactuses were of no interest to her. (2.25.8)

This brings us back to the problem Kundera introduced early in the novel: the lightness of events that occur only once. By photographing the Prague invasion, Tereza means to preserve it in time so that it can be judged, so that the Russians must take some responsibility for it, and so that it carries weight, even though it does not recur.

Karenin was not overjoyed by the move to Switzerland. Karenin hated change. Dog time cannot be plotted along a straight line; it does not move on and on, from one thing to the next. It moves in a circle like the hands of a clock, which-they, too, unwilling to dash madly ahead-turn round and round the face, day in and day out following the same path. (2.27.1)

If events recur for Karenin, does that mean they take on more weight than the events that, for humans, occur only once?

The bowler hat was a motif in the musical composition that was Sabina's life. It returned again and again, each time with a different meaning, and all the meanings flowed through the bowler hat like water through a riverbed. I might call it Heraclitus' ("You can't step twice into the same river") riverbed: the bowler hat was a bed through which each time Sabina saw another river flow, another semantic river: each time the same object would give rise to a new meaning, though all former meanings would resonate (like an echo, like a parade of echoes) together with the new one. Each new experience would re-sound, each time enriching the harmony. The reason why Tomas and Sabina were touched by the sight of the bowler hat in a Zurich hotel and made love almost in tears was that its black presence was not merely a reminder of their love games but also a memento of Sabina's father and of her grandfather, who lived in a century without airplanes and cars. (3.2.9)

The bowler hat carries weight primarily because it has recurred. This is exactly why motifs give meaning to an individual's life – because they recur over and over again. This is how we are able to give our lives meaning despite the fact that our life occurs only once.

Let there be no mistake: Tereza did not wish to take revenge on Tomas; she merely wished to find a way out of the maze. She knew that she had become a burden to him: she took things too seriously, turning everything into a tragedy, and failed to grasp the lightness and amusing insignificance of physical love. How she wished she could learn lightness! She yearned for someone to help her out of her anachronistic shell. (4.8.4)

Tereza's inability to embrace lightness is presented as anachronistic. The modern lifestyle seems from the narrator's perspective to be characterized by the lifestyles of Tomas and Sabina.

Tereza could think of nothing but the possibility that the engineer had been sent by the police. And who was that strange boy who drank himself silly and told her he loved her? It was because of him that the bald police spy had launched into her and the engineer stood up for her. So all three had been playing parts in a prearranged scenario meant to soften her up for the seduction! (4.24.9)

Again we see how the political and historical content of Unbearable Lightness is interwoven with the personal, romantic, and sexual. The lives of these characters are the product of their surroundings. This story could not have played out and these characters could not have existed in any other time or setting. There is a degree of irony in Tereza's belief that she is anachronistic, because she is molded by the times in which she lives.

She went outside and set off in the direction of the embankment. She wanted to see the Vltava. She wanted to stand on its banks and look long and hard into its waters, because the sight of the flow was soothing and healing. The river flowed from century to century, and human affairs play themselves out on its banks. Play themselves out to be forgotten the next day, while the river flows on. (4.29.2)

Think about this in the context of Kundera's opening two chapters, in which he discusses the idea of eternal return.

The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border (the border beyond which my own "I" ends) which attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about. The novel is not the author's confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become. (5.15.7)

The narrator begins Unbearable Lightness with the claim that, if lives happen only once, they have no weight. We cannot judge our actions nor take responsibility for them because we can never compare them with alternative outcomes. But here, the narrator explores those alternative outcomes by creating characters that are his own "unrealized possibilities." In doing so, he gives his life weight.

Several days later, he was struck by another thought […]: Some-where out in space there was a planet where all people would be born again. They would be fully aware of the life they had spent on earth and of all the experience they had amassed here.

[…]

And perhaps there were yet more and more planets, where mankind would be born one degree (one life) more mature.

[…]

Only from the perspective of such a utopia is it possible to use the concepts of pessimism and optimism with full justification: an optimist is someone who thinks that on planet number five the history of mankind will be less bloody. A pessimist is one who thinks otherwise. (5.16.1-6)

Kundera explores the idea of eternal return in this novel. Is his view ultimately optimistic or pessimistic?

If Karenin had been a person instead of a dog, he would surely have long since said to Tereza, "Look, I'm sick and tired of carrying that roll in my mouth every day. Can't you come up with something different?" And therein lies the whole of man's plight. Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition. (7.4.13)

Given this definition, are any of the characters in Unbearable Lightness capable of being happy?

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