Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 994
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 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...
(The entire section contains 994 words.)
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