Study Guide

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Time

By Milan Kundera

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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.

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