The Unbearable Lightness of Being

by Milan Kundera

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Critical Evaluation

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The Czech writer Milan Kundera is widely considered one of Europe’s most outstanding novelists. In 1975, his books were denounced as counterrevolutionary and banned by the Czech Communist government. Partly as a result of this, he is often labeled a dissident, in spite of his conviction that his works are not political. His characters are not representatives of any ideology, but unique individuals whose viewpoints are challenged and developed by personal and social dilemmas. Kundera’s works offended the Czech Communist government because they are emphatically apolitical; they insist on the primacy of the individual. Kundera’s novels do not assert opinions; rather, they pose questions and search for answers: He never knows which of his characters are right.

In line with this stance, his novels, The Unbearable Lightness of Being included, show the influence of writers such as Miguel de Cervantes, Franz Kafka, and Denis Diderot, in that the novels dismiss conventional novelistic structures in favor of parallel explorations of related themes, multiple standpoints represented by different characters, and integration of dreams, fantasy, and philosophical contemplation with realistic narrative. The Unbearable Lightness of Being was published in 1984 to great critical acclaim. This novel is notable for its bold juxtapositions: an intimate love story set against the backdrop of the Prague invasion, the subtle workings of human relationships set against larger metaphysical truths. Kundera views his characters with a sharp ironic insight balanced by immense compassion and humor. Among twentieth century novelists, he is arguably one of the wisest observers of the pathos and paradoxes of adult love.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being develops a theme that recurs in a minor way in all of Kundera’s earlier novels and in some of his poetry: the opposition between heaviness and lightness. Tomas espouses the philosophy of lightness, which for him means the pursuit of many sexual liaisons without the burden of love and commitment. As the narrator comments, however, the heavier the burden, the more real one’s life becomes; the absence of a burden makes one take leave of the earth and become as insignificant as one is free. Tomas’s opposite is Tereza, who arrives with her heavy suitcase and cannot be brushed off. His commitment to lightness and consequent resistance to fidelity to Tereza is counterbalanced throughout the novel by a highly significant metaphor: Tereza seen by Tomas as an abandoned child sent downstream in a bulrush basket and washed up against his bed. The narrator repeatedly insists on the power of this metaphor over Tomas: How can he resist such an image? Tereza’s fidelity to Tomas is described as the one pillar that anchors their relationship to the ground. As he becomes more closely involved with her, her grief over his womanizing weighs heavily on both of them. Tomas eventually embraces the burden of this heavy relationship, choosing to be with Tereza over a new job, a home, and freedom in Switzerland.

Sabina’s devotion to lightness is more complete. She maintains lightness by betraying every expectation placed upon her: by the Communists in her youth; by those who wish her to denounce the Soviet regime; by her lover, Franz. Franz is somewhat of a parallel character with Tereza in that he favors commitment over levity. He is committed to the political ideal of the Grand March. Sabina, in contrast, had trouble with the political parades of her youth. She could never keep in step or remember the songs.

Significantly, Sabina, with her horror of being weighed down by love, by kitsch, and by heavy tombstones, is the only one of the four main characters who survives. The others are literally...

(This entire section contains 962 words.)

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and metaphorically crushed to death by heavy weights: Tomas and Tereza are crushed by their truck, and Franz dies in pursuit of his earnest commitment to the Grand March, killed by a heavy blow. Tomas and Tereza’s love and Franz’s commitment, however, lend their lives significance and weight.

Related to the theme of lightness and weight is the “Es muss sein!” (“It must be!”) motif, taken from a weighty musical phrase in a Beethoven quartet. When Tomas leaves Zurich to rejoin Tereza in Prague, he says to himself, “Es muss sein!” Almost immediately, a paradox strikes him: His relationship with Tereza was in fact born of a chain of laughable coincidences, such as his going to a particular town to do a surgery and his stopping in a particular café. The narrator comments that perhaps Tomas’s real “Es muss sein!,” the overriding necessity of his existence, is his profession as a surgeon. That assumption is called into question when Tomas takes a certain joy in losing his profession and becoming a window cleaner. He is able to forget his work as soon as he goes home; he has found lightness and freedom from the vampire “Es muss sein!” that had sucked his blood. Finally, Tomas is left with the “Es muss sein!” of his womanizing. This weighty compulsion also drops away during his time with Tereza on the farm. The narrator notes Tomas’s curiosity to discover what lies beyond “Es muss sein!” The outcome of the novel suggests that perhaps it is death.

Kundera often uses musical structures and themes in his work, and this novel is no exception. Its structure has been called symphonic, in the sense that the first part presents the basic theme, the middle parts are explorations of the theme from the points of view of different characters, and the final part is the resolution of the theme. Kundera even uses musical terminology to describe the last two parts: “The Grand March” is fortissimo and prestissimo, loud, fast, and cynical in mood, with lots of events; “Karenin’s Smile” is pianissimo and adagio, very soft, with few events.


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Critical Overview