Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Tomas (TAW-mahsh), a noted Czechoslovak surgeon and indefatigable philanderer. At the novel’s pivotal chronological moment (the summer of 1968, when the Russians invade and occupy Czechoslovakia), Tomas is forty years old. He and his wife, Tereza, flee to begin a new life in Switzerland. After several months in Zurich, Tereza abruptly returns to Prague. The fact that Tomas follows Tereza suggests the depth of his love for his wife and homeland. There is, however, no corresponding commitment to fidelity. One of the keys to Tomas’ character, to the pattern of his life, is his firm belief that love and sexuality have nothing in common. Thus, although he returns to Tereza, and truly loves her, his promiscuous womanizing continues. He also loves his country but will not participate in its destruction by the police-state apparatus. He twice refuses to retract a political essay he had published before the crackdown, he resigns his position at the clinic before the police have him fired, and he becomes a window washer. This job presents him with a certain freedom, or blissful indifference, and with many new opportunities to practice his avocation: epic womanizing. There is a stubborn integrity at the core of his personality. Finally, when Tomas and Tereza choose to settle in the countryside and work at a collective farm, a kind of happiness settles over them. They are killed in a highway accident.


Tereza, a small-town waitress and autodidact who yearns for “something higher.” Through a sequence of fortuities, she meets Tomas, follows him to Prague, and becomes his wife. Pursuing her new career as a photographer, she is caught up in the Soviet invasion, taking daring photographs, risking arrest, and experiencing a happiness...

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The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Kundera’s characters play upon the polarities of masculine/feminine, strength/weakness, mind/body, intellectual/emotive, and fidelity/betrayal. They are simultaneously individuals and types. The reader’s knowledge and understanding of their motives, however, are mediated by Kundera’s narrator, who seems more sympathetic to Tereza and her concerns than to those of Tomas. The narrator says that Tomas is a compulsive womanizer, obsessed with discovering that millionth part of each woman that makes her unique. This explanation seems unconvincing, though, for the reader is never allowed inside Tomas’ consciousness to share his perceptions. Franz is little better as a character: the brilliant professor forever seeking vicarious excitement in some political cause.

Kundera’s women are more interesting as characters. Tereza is drawn sympathetically and in depth. Kundera reveals enough about her parents and her childhood through flashbacks to make her behavior quite credible.Her mother is a monster of egotism: selfish, manipulative, and utterly incapable of love. It is not surprising that Tereza is so insecure. Sabina, as well, is a victim of parental abuse. Her father, a puritanical, small-town dignitary, instills in her a distrust of men and an instinct for betrayal as a means of self-preservation. His rigidity, later reinforced by the Czech Communist Party, gives Sabina a lifelong distaste for “The Great March” of artistic or political conformity. Determined to become her own person, she marries unwisely, but her alcoholic actor-husband leaves her, and she is free to develop her talents as an artist. Sabina’s craving for novelty leaves her dissatisfied with Franz, whose bourgeois decency bores her, and she leaves him after he has left his wife, Marie-Claude, for her. Their incompatibility is dramatized by a “Dictionary of Misunderstood Words,” a glossary of the same words with different meanings for each.

Aside from Tereza’s mother, who is unnamed but described in some detail, the other minor characters—Franz’s wife Marie-Claude, Tomas’ first wife, his son Simon, Franz’s daughter Marie-Anne, and his student mistress—remain indistinct. There are also major historical figures in the novel, including Czech prime minister Alexander Dubcek, who provide an important historical counterpoint to the fictional plot.