Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 742
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 she has not known before. She initiates their move to Switzerland, just as she chooses to return. However insecure Tereza may feel, she does make choices, and she lives up to the consequences of them. The mainspring of her character is her longing for beauty, for a world in which the soul will manifest itself and take precedence over the promiscuous and immodest flesh and over the view of the world—instilled in her by her mother—as a grim concentration camp of bodies. Driven and haunted by jealousy, and compelled by and committed to fidelity, Tereza feels unhappiness that is centered on her husband’s sexual encounters with other women. Finally, when they have settled in the country and there is no longer a wide range of women for Tomas to pursue, Tereza knows the happiness for which she has longed, the satisfaction of her vision of “weight” through responsibility and fidelity.
Franz, a Swiss university professor. A gifted and successful scholar, he feels suffocated by his vocation. He has a “weakness for revolution” and a fascination with leftist causes, and he remains intoxicated with the kitsch of the “Grand March,” the author’s name for the fantasy joining leftists and revolutionaries of all times. His personal life parallels his political life: His relationship with his wife is superficial, as is his affair with Sabina, his mistress, from whom he is separated by an abyss of misunderstanding. In Sabina’s eyes, Franz, though he has physical strength, is a weak person. In the schematic presentation of character that drives the novel, Franz is an exemplar of “lightness.”
Sabina, a Czechoslovak painter. Like Tomas and Tereza, Sabina flees her homeland, but she remains in a permanent state of exile in both a physical and a spiritual sense. She is a strong, liberated, and sophisticated professional woman. A central figure in spite of her limited presence, she is mistress to both Franz and Tomas. She serves as a foil to define her lovers, yet she remains mysteriously superficial...
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