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The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera

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Czech-born French novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, and poet.

The following entry presents criticism on Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984). See also Milan Kundera Short Story Criticism, Milan Kundera Literary Criticism (Volume 4), and Volumes 9, 19, 115.

An internationally renowned contemporary author, Milan Kundera is acclaimed for his philosophically complex fiction and essays that explore the conflicting forces of personal desire, private and public morality, and social control. Largely informed by his experiences as a political dissident in his native Czechoslovakia, Kundera's writing is characterized by its ironic tone, inventive narrative structures, and integration of realism, dream, and abstract contemplation. His novel L'insoutenable l'égèreté de l'être (1984; The Unbearable Lightness of Being) is highly regarded as a profound examination of intentionality, chance, and individual responsibility under modern political oppression. In part an indictment of communist totalitarianism, the novel is more broadly a metaphysical treatise on the nature of human existence and relationships. At turns lyrical, darkly comic, and expository, the novel focuses on the intertwined lives of two men and two women whose various psychological motivations reflect the paradoxical dualities of history, freedom, and love.

Plot and Major Characters

Set primarily in Czechoslovakia around the time of the 1968 Soviet occupation of that country, the seven-part, non-chronological narrative, punctuated by frequent authorial intrusions, revolves around the interrelated lives of four main characters: Tomas, Tereza, Sabina, and Franz. The first part, “Lightness and Weight,” begins with a philosophical disquisition on Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of “eternal return,” then introduces Tomas, a successful Prague surgeon, who reflects upon his relationship with Tereza, a barmaid he met several years earlier in a provincial town and has since married. An unabashed libertine, Tomas engages in constant affairs with other women, most significantly Sabina, a painter, that are deeply hurtful to Tereza. Shortly after the Soviets invade Czechoslovakia, Tomas and Tereza leave for Zurich, Switzerland, where Tomas has found a new job, and the couple seek a fresh start together. However, Sabina has also emigrated to Switzerland and she and Tomas soon resume their affair. Jealous and humiliated, Tereza deserts Tomas and returns to Prague with their dog, Karenin. Soon Tomas follows her back to Prague despite the knowledge that his return to Czechoslovakia will cost him his freedom and career. The second part, “Soul and Body,” provides insight into the psychological history of Tereza. After the early loss of her father, a political prisoner who died in jail, Tereza was traumatized by her resentful mother whose vulgar displays of her naked, obese body and its noisy emissions embarrassed Tereza. The reader learns of Tereza's harrowing dreams about Tomas, most significantly one in which Tomas presides over a line of naked women, including Tereza, who are forced to march around a swimming pool, singing and performing kneebends. In the dream, Tomas shoots those who fail to do a proper kneebend, leaving their bodies to float in the water while the others continue on. It is also revealed that, upon Tereza's first arrival in Prague, Sabina helped her find work as a photojournalist. The peculiar bond between the wife and mistress of Tomas is portrayed in a sexually charged episode in which the two women discuss art and photograph one another in the nude.The third part, “Words Misunderstood,” introduces Franz, a dutiful professor of philosophy who enters into an extramarital affair with Sabina while she is in...

(The entire section contains 52780 words.)

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Essays and Criticism