Study Guide

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Identity

By Milan Kundera

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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.

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