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The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Milan Kundera

Study Questions

Key Facts

Quiz

What role does chance play in Tomas and Tereza's relationship? The two characters interpret the meaning of this element of chance in different ways—for which way of interpretation does Kundera have more sympathy?

A string of chance events and coincidences bring Tomas and Tereza together; Tomas thinks of her as a woman born of "six fortuities" in his life, including the sickness of a doctor, which brought him to her town, and the coincidence of his room number being six. This element of chance bothers Tomas. When he decides to give up political freedom in order to return to Prague and be with Tereza, Tomas gives up his career and the happiness he used to imagine for himself. It bothers him to think how utte rly random it is that he fell in love with this particular woman and therefore had to sacrifice so much.

Tereza, on the other hand, reads chance events like signs from fate. She fell in love with Tomas precisely because of the coincidences that brought them together, and new coincidences (such as his return to Prague from Zurich at precisely six o' clock) charm her with their beauty. Tereza reads her life like a novel, filled with foreshadowing and symbols for her to interpret and decode. Kundera seems to condone Tereza's method of interpretation and says that "the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty." He criticizes those readers who are dismayed at the coincidences in a novel, and writes, "but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty."

What is kitsch and how is it the linking factor behind all religions, credos and political parties that believe in the Grand March?

Most European credos, religious or political, state that the world is good and human existence positive: Kundera calls this "categorical agreement with being." He points out that something like shit, however, has no place in any of these credos. Their aesthetic ideal is instead kitsch, which can be considered "the absolute denial of shit."

In other words, in order to present a consistent, idealized, and romantic view of the world, all of these credos erase what is uncomfortable to them, what does not fit. This fundamentally dishonest and neutered way of looking at the world results in the aesthetics of pale pastel paintings of family scenes, or photographs of identical laughing children with red Communist kerchiefs around their necks.

Just as nothing inappropriate or marring can be allowed in the aesthetic of kitsch, individuals cannot be allowed either. The Grand March, therefore, is based on people marching in step, screaming slogans together with one voice. Sabina points out that this "ideal" is actually much worse than any violent or imperfect totalitarian reality.

What is "the unbearable lightness of being"?

The idea of an unbearable lightness of being comes from reversing Nietzsche's idea of eternal return. Kundera wonders if any meaning or weight can be attributed to life, since there is no eternal return: if man only has the opportunity to try one path, to make one decision, there is no point of comparison and hence no meaning but instead an unbearable weightlessness. No decision can be considered informed or moral if we cannot compare paths.

This idea bothers Tomas throughout his relationship with Tereza; each time he chooses to stay with her, he realizes he will never know what would have happened had he left, and he will never know whether staying was the right decision.

The opposition of lightness and heaviness, the key dichotomy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, offers two different methods of dealing with this unbearable lightness. Some, like Sabina or the ancient Greek Parmenides, embrace lightness and find it liberating. Others, like Tereza, seek heaviness to give them a sense of meaning. Kundera does not attempt to decide between lightness and darkness, or cast one or the other as the "right" way to live. Each character struggles with the unbearable light ness of being in some imperfect, human way, and no single method proves superior to the others.

Suggested Essay Topics

Of the four main characters, only Sabina remains alive at the end of the novel. Is this an optimistic ending to her story?

Even Sabina, betrayal and originality personified in so many ways, finds herself susceptible to kitsch as she grows older. She listens to bad, nostalgic music and regrets leaving her parents. How can one reconcile this with her overall hatred of kitsch?

How does Kundera understand romantic love, as evidenced by his portrayal of Tomas and Tereza, Tomas and Sabina, and Sabina and Franz?

In interviews, Kundera has complained that if he writes a 200-page love story and includes three lines about politics, critics call his novel a political novel of ideas. To what extent can The Unbearable Lightness of Being be considered a political novel?

Why does Kundera structure the novel in several parts, telling the same story over and over again from different perspectives and filling in details? What affect does this have on the reader, and what significance can be found in this depiction of time?

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