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The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Milan Kundera

Part 2: Soul and Body

Part 1: Lightness and Weight

Part 3: Words Misunderstood

Summary

Part two of The Unbearable Lightness of Being examines the story of Tomas and Tereza—precisely the story we read in Part I—from Tereza's perspective. Arriving at Tomas's flat for the first time, Tereza feels humiliated by her rumbling stomach. She feels that the soul and body are entirely separate entities; she has always hated the body.

Tereza looks like her mother. Tereza's mother, a cruel and vulgar woman, was a beauty in her youth but married early because of pregnancy. She left her husband and young daughter to live with a scoundrel; after Tereza's father got into political trouble, Tereza was sent to live with her mother and stepfather. Her mother's beauty faded with three more children and the misery of her life, and she took out all of her frustration on her eldest daughter.

Tereza's mother took pleasure in embarrassing and torturing the shy, unhappy girl. Tereza dropped out of high school early to take care of her mother and younger half-siblings. Her mother, attempting to combat the reality of her own faded beauty, paraded about the house naked, spoke in public about her sex life, and refused to allow Tereza to lock the bathroom door, to demonstrate that all human bodies were equal and natural. Tereza's only solaces were books, dreams of a cultured life, and the idea of an individual soul different from the bodies surrounding it. She found another comfort after hearing a string quartet from Prague play Beethoven.

Tereza can hardly help from falling in love with Tomas, for she first sees him surrounded by the objects she associates with a lovely, longed-for life: she brings him cognac, and sees a book on his table, hears strains of Beethoven on the radio, and understands he is from Prague. To add to the coincidence, his hotel room number is six, the number of her parents' house in Prague before their divorce. She tells Tomas she leaves work at six, and when she leaves, she finds him sitting outside the entrance on her favorite bench. They spend less than an hour together before he returns to Prague by train, but the coincidences convince Tereza that Tomas is destined for her. The narrator points out that the same element of chance that makes Tomas uneasy about thei r relationship is precisely what makes Tereza feel confident about it.

The second time Tereza visits Tomas, she arrives with her heavy suitcase and Anna Karenina, hoping to enter Tomas's world. When she and Tomas make love, she screams and keeps her eyes fixed on the ceiling. Her scream is "aimed at crippling the senses"; she screams in an attempt to make sex about the spirit, rather than the body she so hates.

In Prague, Tereza's natural intelligence and self-education help her learn photography. She moves from darkroom assistant to staff photographer with Sabina's help. She and Sabina celebrate her success by going out dancing; Tereza dances with a man she meets, and enjoys Tomas's jealousy at seeing her with another man.

Tomas does not enable Tereza to entirely escape the hated world of her childhood. She cannot leave behind her horror of indistinguishable bodies; just as Tereza's mother insisted that all bodies are the same, Tomas does not differentiate between Tereza's body and the bodies of other women. Tereza even briefly considers returning to her mother, partially because she desires to hurt Thomas.

Thinking constantly of Tomas's affairs, Tereza decides to try and make other women's bodies something she and Tomas share, rather than something that divides them. She befriends Sabina and goes to her studio, where Sabina shows her paintings and describes her artistic project. At a realist art school, Sabina accidentally dripped paint on a picture. This accident inspired her to make paintings in which a realistic, mundane world gets subverted by a crack or a rip showing a magical or abstract scene peeking through. Tereza understands Sabina's paintings and admires her. Tereza notices the bed in the studio where Sabina and Tomas have made love many times before. Tereza takes pictures of Sabina in a bowler hat, then asks her to take off her clothes. The two women drink and Sabina strips. After Tereza takes several photogr aphs, Sabina takes the camera and tells Tereza to strip. The command to strip is a familiar one to both women, as Tomas uses it frequently. Tereza takes off her clothes, and both women feel the eerie seduction of the moment; then Sabina laughs, dispelling the charged atmosphere, and both women dress.

During the Soviet tank invasion, Tereza finds new meaning in her photography, doing dangerous and ostensibly important work documenting the invasion. She photographs young Czech women torturing celibate Russian soldiers by parading in tiny miniskirts and kissing random passers-by. When she and Tomas move to Geneva, she takes these photos with her and offers them to a magazine. The editor tells Tereza that the photographs are beautiful but no longer timely, as the Czech invasion was popular a while ago. Te reza meets a female photographer with a nudist beach photo story. The "honest" depiction of ugly naked bodies horrifies Tereza, and she begins to think that her invasion photos are similarly horrifying in their depiction of the human body. Both photograph er and editor assure her that there is nothing ugly about the body.

The photographer invites Tereza to coffee and suggests Tereza try fashion photography, mentioning her photographs of the provocative Czech girls. In the meantime, she suggests Tereza shoot cactuses for the garden pages. Tereza responds that she does not need to work, as her husband can support her. The female photographer does not understand, and thinks Tereza is "anachronistic." Tereza says Tomas thinks so, too.

Tereza is miserable in Geneva; she has nothing to do while Tomas works in the hospital or sees other women. She thinks of her country and the politician Dubcek, who was weak and humiliated in the face of Soviet power. Tereza thinks she belongs in a country of the weak, and wishes Tomas were as weak as she. A phone call from a woman asking for Tomas sends her over the edge, and she returns to Prague with her dog Karenin.

In Prague she considers moving back to the small town she came from, or having an affair with some grotesque man, to hurt herself in some way and forget Tomas. Tomas arrives after five days, having followed her to Prague; his arrival makes Tereza realize that she did not leave the city because she was unconsciously hoping he would follow her.

Analysis

Tereza's perspective on her relationship with Tomas complicates the story told in Part I. Kundera makes Tereza just as sympathetic as Thomas; her heaviness seems noble and beautiful. Unlike Tomas, she takes everything in her life seriously, from sexuality to tiny, significant signs.

Tereza's heaviness of being causes her to suffer horribly; her mother's torments weigh heavily on Tereza, as does Tomas's infidelity. Still, the heaviness also allows Tereza to find meaning and beauty in her life, a benefit of heaviness the narrator posited in the opening of the novel. Tereza imbues coincidences with deep meaning. She believes, therefore, that each choice she makes is predestined. She suffers none of Tomas's indecision; while he agonizes over the multiplicity of choices and paths availabl e, she feels calmly confident that each choice she makes is the only possible one.

This second section of The Unbearable Lightness of Being suggests that perhaps lightness and heaviness are not polar opposites. Tomas and Tereza represent different sides of the dichotomy, but both are capable of feeling the pull of the other side, and hence fall in love. Tomas falls in love with Tereza partly because he wants to feel heaviness. Tereza learns some lightness from Tomas; this lightness causes her to risk her life for her country, and then leave Czechoslovakia abruptly, and to enjoy t he company, friendship and eroticism of her husband's mistress, Sabina.

Kundera associates the body with lightness, and the soul with heaviness. He associates Tereza with the soul—a fitting association, considering her identification as a heavy character. Indeed, the body repulses Tereza, and she tries to live entirely as a soul.

Part 2, in portraying the free Western world, contradicts assumptions that political freedom means automatic happiness for individuals. Politically free Switzerland, where Tomas and Tereza move, does not offer Tereza the communities of dissidents or journalists to which she belonged in Prague. The people she meets in Switzerland treat her badly—the magazine editor tells Tereza Prague's problems are no longer fashionable, for example.

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