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The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Milan Kundera

Important Quotations Explained

Part 7: Karenin's Smile

Key Facts

"From tender youth we are told by father and teacher that betrayal is the most heinous offence imaginable. But what is betrayal?…Betrayal means breaking ranks and breaking off into the unknown. Sabina knew of nothing more magnificent than going off into the unknown."

Sabina characterizes a celebration of lightness, originality and individuality in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. She considers owing something to others and keeping promises as an unacceptable weight, and kitsch and non-genuine besides. She does not believe in nationalism or domesticity and refuses to play by societal rules. Betrayal to her means not allowing anyone or anything to have power over her, and therefore retaining her ability to live genuinely, creatively and beautifully.

"'You mean you don't want to fight the occupation of your country?' She would have liked to tell them that behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists ad shouting identical syllables in unison."

Most European credos, religious or political, adhere to what Kundera calls a "categorical agreement with being." Their aesthetic ideal is kitsch. Nothing inappropriate or marring can be allowed in the aesthetic of kitsch, and the individual cannot be allo wed either. The Grand March, which encompasses all these various and seemingly conflicting credos, is based on people screaming slogans together with one voice and marching in step. Sabina holds that the ideal of one-voice-no-individuals is actually much worse than any violent or imperfect totalitarian reality.

"'Not at all,' said Tereza. 'They're the same.' Neither the editor nor the photographer understood her, and even I find it difficult to explain what she had in mind when she compared a nude beach to the Russian invasion."

Tereza sees an irreconcilable split between body and soul. Traumatized early on by the lack of privacy in her mother's house, Tereza hates the sight of exposed, ugly, naked bodies. She equates her childhood to a concentration camp because both lack privacy. Her desire for freedom from her body explains the special pain caused by Tomas's womanizing, as well; she had hoped he would love her soul and make her feel integrated. Instead, the idea that he equates her body with those of other women dr ives her to the brink of insanity.

"He had gone back to Prague because of her. So fateful a decision resting on so fortuitous a love, a love that would not even have existed had it not been for the chief surgeon's sciatica seven years earlier. And that woman, that personification of absolute fortuity, now again lay beside him, breathing deeply."

Tomas and Tereza's entire romance is based on a string of chance events and coincidences, which frightens Tomas. Tomas thinks of Tereza as a woman born of "six fortuities" in his life, including the sickness of a doctor that brought him to her town, mentioned here, and the coincidences of his room number, books, and Beethoven. Returning to Prague for this woman means Tomas willingly gives up his career and the happiness he used to imagine for himself. It bothers him to think how utterly random it is that he fell in love with this particular woman and therefore had to sacrifice so much in his life. Tereza, on the other hand, thinks such coincidence are planned by fate, and make up the beauty of life.

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