Study Guide

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

by Milan Kundera

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In many ways, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a more traditional novel than The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. It, too, mixes genres and is tied together by variations on a series of themes: lightness and heaviness, body and soul, vertigo and eternal return, the Grand March. It also tells several clearly related stories about four fully developed characters: the waitress/photographer Tereza, the doctor Tomas, the painter Sabina, and the professor Franz. This novel does not follow the conventions of the realistic novel: The fact of the main characters’ deaths is revealed long before it occurs, thereby undermining the plot’s suspense; a major character is introduced toward the end of the novel and then disappears; and a section is told from the point of view of Tereza and Tomas’s dog. It does, however, create and resolve a central conflict among these characters, and it does occur within a recognizable social and historical context.

The main characters are carefully paired, both romantically and thematically. Tereza and Tomas, Tomas and Sabina, and Sabina and Franz are each involved in love affairs. Tereza and Franz are both associated with the theme of weight and heaviness; Tomas and Sabina, with the theme of lightness. Weight and heaviness are associated with the soul, commitment, seriousness, responsibility; lightness, with the body, betrayal, infidelity, and selfishness. Through Tereza’s influence, in the course of the...

(The entire section is 556 words.)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Summary (Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a complex postmodernist novel, at once political, philosophical, and erotic. Milan Kundera’s characters live in a world of irrevocable choices and fortuitous events, where the public and private spheres overlap and impinge upon each other. In this novel of ideas, the characters’ actions are viewed through the narrator’s erudite perspective and in terms of a number of cultural allusions, including Parmenides, Sophocles, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Leo Tolstoy.

The allusions to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1875-1877) are of particular importance in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The connection is apparent from the moment Kundera introduces his heroine, Tereza, with a copy of Tolstoy’s novel under her arm. Tomas and Tereza even name their female dog Karenin, with comical results. Like Tolstoy, Kundera employs a comparison between two couples, Tomas and Tereza, and Franz and Sabina, but the contrast is not simply that of adultery and fidelity.

A number of philosophical and musical motifs are woven throughout the novel, including the notion of eternal return, Parmenides’ dualism of weight and lightness, the Platonic dualism of body and soul, Beethoven’s “Es muss sein,” the German proverb “Einmal ist keinmal,” a revulsion against kitsch, Kundera’s sense of the fortuitous coincidence of love and beauty, and the paradoxical relationship of fidelity and betrayal. How do people meet and fall in love? What is love but chance and fortuity?

Tomas and Tereza seem destined to fall in love, though their meeting rests on an improbable set of coincidences. Tomas, a noted Prague surgeon, was married to his first wife for only two years before they were divorced. Spiteful, she refused him visiting rights to his son unless he brought her expensive gifts. The experience leaves him fearful of women and determined to remain uninvolved. He devises a strategy of “erotic friendships” with his mistresses, based on a rule of threes: to see them either three times in brief succession and never again, or else once every three weeks. This stratagem works well until Tomas meets Tereza.

Tomas has been sent to a provincial Czech hospital to investigate a rare neurological case, and he meets Tereza, who is waiting on tables at the hotel where he stays. She admires him because he is reading a book. He orders a cognac and at that...

(The entire section is 994 words.)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Tomas is visiting a provincial town in Czechoslovakia to perform surgery when he meets Tereza in a café, where she works as a waitress. Shortly after he returns home to Prague, she turns up at his apartment with a heavy suitcase. They make love immediately. She then comes down with flu, and he is unable to make her leave his apartment for a week afterward. Even when he has installed her in an apartment of her own, he is unable to leave her.

Although Tomas loves Tereza as he has loved no other woman, he is unable to give up seeing other women. Chief among these is the artist Sabina. Sabina resembles Tomas in her wish not to be weighed down by the heavy burden of love and in her tendency to betray those who threaten her freedom. At Tomas’s request, Sabina finds work for Tereza in a photographic darkroom and encourages her to develop her talent for photography. The two women become friends, though their relationship is affected by Tereza’s awareness of Sabina’s continuing relationship with Tomas.

Tomas marries Tereza and buys her a dog, which they name Karenin. Both actions are partly motivated by Tomas’s desire to try to make amends for his womanizing. Tereza’s efforts to tolerate Tomas’s lifestyle are undermined by her recurring dreams that reveal her inability to accept his infidelities. When he recognizes the suffering his actions cause Tereza, Tomas is racked with guilt, but he is still unable to stop seeing other women.

Following the liberalization of Czechoslovakia under the leadership of Alexander Dubek (the Prague Spring), Soviet tanks roll into Prague and a military occupation begins. Tereza roams the streets with her camera, capturing the horrors of the occupation on film. She gives the film to foreign visitors to smuggle out of the country and publish abroad. When Tomas is offered a job in Zurich, Switzerland, he and Tereza move there. His passport is taken as he crosses the border, so he knows that if he ever goes back to Czechoslovakia, it will be for the rest of his life.

Sabina is already living in Switzerland, in Geneva. She becomes involved with Franz, a university lecturer. Franz is...

(The entire section is 883 words.)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Summary

Part 1: Lightness and Weight
The novel opens with a meditation on philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's idea of the eternal return,...

(The entire section is 1160 words.)