Study Guide

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Themes

By Milan Kundera

  • Life, Consciousness, Existence

    The Unbearable Lightness of Being is both a work of philosophy and a work of fiction. Pages of philosophical exposition are intertwined with several intricate plotlines. The narrative supports and exemplifies the philosophy, while the philosophy explores and explains the fiction. Kundera begins his novel by rejecting the idea of eternal return and suggesting that our lives occur only once. The novel concludes that, because we live only once, our lives lack weight – they are unbearably light. The story explores the struggle to give life meaning in the face of this unbearable lightness.

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, Existence

    1. Kundera asks in the beginning of his novel which is better, and which we shall choose: weight, or lightness? What does the novel ultimately argue in favor of? Are both options for us, or is only one of the two available to us? Do we have a choice at all?
    2. In Tomas's mind, Tereza is the woman born of six fortuities. Is Tomas's love for Tereza necessarily lacking in weight just because it was fortuitous? Do we need a sense of es muss sein to ascribe weight to something?
    3. What is the relationship between es muss sein and fortuities? Is a fortuitous event, as Tomas believes, the opposite of es muss sein, or are fortuities, as Tereza believes, the very evidence of es muss sein?
    4. Kundera is famously quoted as saying, "A novel that does not uncover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral. Knowledge is the novel's only morality" (New York Review of Books, July 19, 1984). How do you see this idea at work in The Unbearable Lightness of Being? What does this novel uncover about existence? How does knowledge function as morality here?

    Chew on This

    The Unbearable Lightness of Being is ultimately pessimistic about the human condition.

    The Unbearable Lightness of Being is ultimately optimistic about the human condition.

  • Sex

    The Unbearable Lightness of Being presents a forceful and very particular view of sex. In this novel, sex is always about power and never about equality; one person always has control over the other. The women in the novel express their sexuality in a desire to be degraded and sometimes humiliated by the men who love them. Through Tomas, one of the novel's main characters, Kundera takes a look at the different kinds of sexual obsessions that drive womanizing men. He ends up arguing that, for some, promiscuity is a compulsion beyond an individual's control. Tomas himself argues that sex and love are completely different things, and that to be faithful to someone emotionally does not require sexual fidelity.

    Questions About Sex

    1. When she is photographing Sabina, why does Tereza ask her to take her clothes off? And why is Tereza, who finds nudity humiliating, willing to strip for Sabina?
    2. As readers, are we inclined to judge Tomas for his philandering? Why or why not? Does his explanation (the distinction between sex and love, between physical and emotional fidelity) make sense, or is it just his way of justifying his actions?
    3. Compare the sexual relationships of Tomas/Tereza, Tomas/Sabina, and Sabina/Franz. What do the details of these relationships tell us about the characters?
    4. Why does Tereza stay with Tomas if his cheating hurts her so much?

    Chew on This

    The political turmoil of Czechoslovakia during the Russian invasion is reflected in the sexual lives of the novel's main characters.

    Every sexual relationship in The Unbearable Lightness of Being is based on inequality.

  • Love

    In some sense, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is an epic love story. Love is certainly a battle in this novel, which becomes a particularly apt metaphor given the stormy backdrop of political and social turmoil. The couples in this story struggle with issues of fidelity, power, fate, fortuity, and miscommunication. Kundera uses the metaphor of interwoven music compositions to describe the melding of two different lives into a common set of experiences and motifs. The question is raised as to the relationship between love and sex, and whether or not they can be separated.

    Questions About Love

    1. The narrator says early in the novel that "metaphors are dangerous," "not to be trifled with," and "can give birth to love" (1.4.12). This is in the context of Tomas's image of Tereza as a baby in a basket sent downriver. How is this a dangerous metaphor, and how does it, as Kundera says, "give birth" to his love for Tereza?
    2. After Tomas returns to Prague from Zurich, following Tereza, he finds her and then "fancie[s] himself standing opposite her in the midst of a snowy plain, the two of them shivering from the cold" (1.16.10). Kundera repeats these words later in the novel, when we see the scene again through Tereza's eyes. What does this image mean with regard to Tomas and Tereza's relationship?
    3. According to the narrator, how does Tereza's childhood relationship with her mother affect her relationship with Tomas an adult?
    4. Why is Franz and Sabina's relationship better for Franz after Sabina has left him?
    5. Kundera writes that "loves are like empires: when the idea they are founded on crumbles, they, too, fade away" (4.28.4). On which idea is Tereza and Tomas's love founded? Franz and Sabina's? Franz and his student-mistress?

    Chew on This

    The Unbearable Lightness of Being is primarily a philosophical work of ideas. The love stories are secondary to the philosophy.

    The Unbearable Lightness of Being is primarily a novel about love, not a philosophical work of ideas.

  • Identity

    The characters in The Unbearable Lightness of Being are interesting because the narrator admits to having created them. They are fictional beings, he explains, born of a metaphor or an idea that encapsulates a basic human possibility. This raises interesting questions in regard to the way identity is crafted in real life – what lies at the core of an individual's "I"? Many characters in the novel, and Tereza in particular, are concerned with just this question. The divide between soul and body, and the attempt to identify the "I" of the soul are explored at great length.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How does Kundera reveal the nature of his characters to us? What details are the most important in establishing their identities?
    2. Kundera writes that the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress" (2.11.4). Later, we see that it is Tereza's sense of beauty that allows her to recognize the fortuities that led to her union with Tomas. What role does beauty play in establishing identity, and which characters fail to recognize beauty or fortuity? (On that note, what is the connection between beauty and fortuity?)
    3. Tereza draws a clear line between the body and the soul, believing that the essence of identity lies in the latter, nor in the former. How is it, then, that she can't understand Tomas's distinction between physical and emotional cheating? What happens when she tries to draw a similar barrier herself (through that tryst with the engineer), and why does that happen?
    4. The narrator argues that characters are born "of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered or said something essential about" (5.15.5). Consider the four major characters in this novel: Tereza, Tomas, Franz, and Sabina. What situation, sentence, or metaphor gave birth to each one of them? What basic human possibility is contained in each of these characters, and what has the narrator discovered that is reflected in each of these characters?

    Chew on This

    In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, identity is only discovered through sex.

    This novel argues that, in the search for self-identity, the soul cannot be separated from the body.

  • Power

    The Unbearable Lightness of Being takes a look at power relationships in love, sex, and politics. The sexual and romantic battles of the novel's four main characters parallel the political and social tensions of the historical backdrop against which the story is set. In this novel, there is no equality in sex or in love – one person is always in control of the other. In the political realm, the novel takes a look at kitsch, which the narrator defines as the aesthetic ideal used by politicians of every kind to enforce their ideologies. The novel also explores weakness and strength as character traits, and asks what personal qualities contribute to each.

    Questions About Power

    1. Sabina tells Tomas that he is the opposite of kitsch. How so? Do you agree with her assessment, or disagree?
    2. What are the power relationships between the different pairs we see in the novel? Describe the power relationship between Sabina and Tomas, Tomas and Tereza, Franz and Sabina, Marie-Claude and Sabina, and Tereza and Karenin. Who is in control and why? Do any of these shift over the course of the novel?
    3. Kundera spends quite a bit of time discussing different types of weakness and strength. Which characters are weak, which are strong, and why? Which type of characters, strong or weak, finds lightness to be unbearable? Which type finds it desirable?

    Chew on This

    In this novel, sexual relationships are based on an inequality of power.

    No matter how strong a character is in this novel, he or she is ultimately at the mercy of his or her own es muss sein.

  • Language and Communication

    The Unbearable Lightness of Being explores the miscommunication that passes between a man and a woman in a relationship together. Kundera uses the metaphor of musical compositions with repeated motifs to describe an individual's life and the recurring concepts in it. If two people meet too late in life, he says, their musical compositions are already written. They cannot exchange motifs and will forever misunderstand the recurring ideas in each other's life. In one brilliant section of the novel, Kundera presents a "Dictionary of Misunderstood Words" that pass between two lovers – Franz and Sabina – who define everything from "betrayal" to "woman" in opposite terms.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. What does photography mean to Tereza? Why does she take pictures of the Russian invasion? Similarly, what does painting mean to Sabina?
    2. At one point the narrator writes that happiness is the longing for repetition. In what other ways is happiness defined in this novel? Which characters are happy in this novel?
    3. Kundera devotes an entire section of Unbearable Lightness to the misunderstood words that pass between Sabina and Franz. Why is this idea of miscommunication so central to the novel? Is it relevant to the love story, the philosophy, or both?
    4. What do we hear of the content of Sabina's paintings, and what does this tell us about her character?
    5. What sort of communication passes between Tereza and Karenin?
    6. How is language and communication hampered by the political atmosphere in Prague? Consider verbal, written, and artistic communication. Why is it that, even after she's escaped Prague, Sabina still isn't able to properly express herself through her paintings?

    Chew on This

    The only pure, effective communication in this novel is that which is unspoken. Language necessarily corrupts communication.

    Tereza and Tomas's communication is perfect and stands in opposition to that of Franz and Sabina.

  • Time

    Much of the philosophical content of The Unbearable Lightness of Being begins with the idea of eternal return, or the notion that our lives are repeated ad infinitum throughout a circular passing of time. Kundera rejects the idea of eternal return and argues that our lives occur only once, and that time is in fact linear, not circular. Because our lives occur only once, they fail to gain weight or significance, and are unbearably light. Kundera compares human time, which is linear, to animal time and idyllic time in biblical Paradise, which he argues are circular. Kundera claims that happiness is the longing for repetition – the longing for circular time. We're out of luck, then, since we cannot experience time this way. Instead, we struggle to give our lives meaning and to be happy when neither are strictly possible.

    Questions About Time

    1. Tereza is described as an anachronistic (i.e., old fashioned) character. What specific traits render her anachronistic? How is this relevant to her relationship with Tomas? To the novel's philosophical themes?
    2. Kundera establishes that, for a dog, time moves in a circle, rather than a line, in that they experience the same routine every day. He also says that happiness is the longing for repetition, and that things can only have weight when they recur. Given this, what do you think is the importance of Karenin in this novel?
    3. Kundera associates the burden of heaviness with Tereza's anachronistic nature. What is it about being able to enjoy lightness that is modern?
    4. Think about Part 4, Chapter 29. What is the significance of the park benches floating down the river? Why does Tereza interpret this as a farewell?

    Chew on This

    The novel itself is the narrator's form of eternal return.

    The bowler hat is a symbol of eternal return.

  • Betrayal

    In this novel, betrayal is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, betrayal is defined as "going off into the unknown" and frequently equated with an individual's rebellion against totalitarian power. In other words, betrayal is the path to freedom. Through Sabina, one of the novel's four main characters, the narrator examines the attraction to and the consequences of betrayal. He concludes that one betrayal leads to subsequent betrayals, and explores what lies at the end of this road.

    Questions About Betrayal

    1. Sabina understands beauty as "a world betrayed" (3.7.14). How is this different from Tereza's understanding of beauty? Tomas's? How does the narrator define and explain beauty?
    2. Why is Sabina attracted by betrayal? What does she hope to attain through her long string of betrayals?
    3. Tereza has a dream in which Tomas sends her up to Petrin Hill to die. Later, when recalling the dream, she claims that the man who sent her to die wore a mask of Tomas's face over his own. Who, then, was the man who sent her to die?
    4. In Tomas's opinion, what are the consequences of retracting his Oedipus article? What are the ramifications of not retracting it? In each case, who or what would be betrayed? Why does he make the decisions that he does regarding the retraction and then regarding the petition his son wants him to sign?

    Chew on This

    Every character in The Unbearable Lightness of Being harbors a self-destructive impulse that takes its form in self-betrayal.

    Every character in The Unbearable Lightness of Being fundamentally betrays the person he or she loves.