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 moment the radio happens to be playing a Beethoven string quartet. They meet in the park. Tomas gives her his card and invites her to look him up if she is ever in Prague. Is it chance or coincidence that brings them together? They accidentally meet in a hotel and the lives of both are forever changed. What gives Tereza the courage to change her life, to leave her job and take the train to Prague to find a man she has met only once? Tomas thinks of Tereza metaphorically as a gift, a child put in a basket and sent downstream for him to retrieve, but metaphors can be dangerous, for “a single metaphor can give birth to love.”
From the beginning of their relationship, Tereza lays claim to Tomas and insists on her right to spend the entire night with him and not be put out of his apartment like his other mistresses. The intensity of her love for him is magnified by her painful awareness of his many infidelities. Tereza was rejected by her mother and made to feel guilty about her body. To be certain of Tomas’ love, Tereza holds on to him compulsively in her sleep, clinging so tightly that Tomas has to pry apart her sleeping grip. Tomas eventually marries Tereza...
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to alleviate her anxieties about his other mistresses, and they spend seven years in Prague. Tereza becomes a photographer and develops a career of her own, with the assistance of the painter Sabina, Tomas’ mistress.
When the Soviets invade Czechoslovakia in August, 1968, Tomas is offered a position abroad by the director of a hospital in Zurich, so they emigrate. Sabina leaves for Switzerland also. Tereza cannot adjust to life in Zurich, away from her career, friends, language, and country, so she decides to return to Prague, even though Czechoslovakia has become a repressive police state. Tereza takes their dog, Karenin, and leaves Tomas only a note. In her weakness, she betrays him. Tomas cannot adjust to life without her, so he decides to return also, although he realizes that he will not get back his hospital position because he left the country illegally.
Finding himself without work, Tomas is forced to wash windows. For a time he is treated as a celebrity, a former surgeon now a window-washer. The freedom from his hospital routine leaves him more time for his amorous adventures, which makes Tereza all the more unhappy. Tomas is also pressured from both sides to make political statements, which he tries to avoid.
With Tomas’ medical career finished, he and Tereza accept a position at a small dairy cooperative in the Czech countryside, where he will be free of political pressures. They find a measure of happiness there, but Tomas ages considerably. Both are killed when the brakes fail on their pickup truck and it careens off a steep road. Franz, Sabina’s former lover, dies in Bangkok after participating in a peace march to the Cambodian border. In the meantime, Sabina has become a famous artist in America, though she has abandoned all of her responsibilities in the process. Her success serves as an ironic counterpoint to Tomas, whose responsibility to Tereza brings him back to Prague and results in the loss of his medical career. Lightness and heaviness, freedom and responsibility are the twin poles of this complex novel. The relationship of Tomas and Tereza begins and ends with dependency and personal sacrifice, although by the end of the novel the terms of the sacrifice have been reversed. Tereza finally wins complete possession of Tomas and compels his fidelity, though in terms unforeseen by either.