Themes and Meanings

Milan Kundera is explicit about the nature of the “God” of his title, and about the difference between his nature and Edward’s merely human one. “God,” as the narrator remarks in a difficult but significant passage, “is essence itself. . . . God alone is relieved of the distracting obligation of appearing and can merely be. For he solely constitutes (He Himself, alone and nonexistent) the essential opposite of this unessential (but so much more existent) world.”

Kundera’s language here derives from the “basic theological literature” of Edward’s studies. Within orthodox Catholic theology, God’s “existence” (the fact of his life) and his “essence” (the defining qualities that make him what he is) are the same thing. God, in other words, is not troubled by the perplexing gap that opens up for Edward between the seemingly arbitrary facts of his actual existence and an “essential” Edward begins to seek for, but in vain. Because, as the narrator’s language insists, the God of this story is “nonexistent.” Unpleasant though he may be in many ways, Edward preserves a certain integrity by refusing to set up for himself some false “essential,” as do other characters in the story (consider Alice’s brittle religiosity or the directress’s rather wooden invocations of “the future”).

Within the story, it is true, Edward’s “straightforward” brother seems to suggest the possibility of a mode of life that is neither tormented nor dishonest. Unlike Alice or the director, he does not appear to deceive himself; unlike Edward, he does not deceive others. Unlike anyone else in the story, he appears to be genuinely happy.

Nevertheless, in his debate with Edward, it is Edward’s criticisms of merely human “truth” that are allowed to stand as the last word. The story’s ambiguous ending seems to suggest that, for Kundera, Edward’s irresolvable, faintly comic dilemma over God is itself the “essence” or defining quality of the human.