The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera
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 Geneva. Franz eventually informs his wife, Marie-Claude, of his nine-month relationship with Sabina, effectively ending his marriage. Angered by his confession, Sabina promptly rejects Franz. Suddenly finding himself alone, Franz soon discovers new purpose in political causes and an affair with a student. Sabina later settles in Paris, where she reflects upon the meaning of her rootless life and a letter she has received from Simon, Tomas's son by an earlier marriage, in which the deaths of Tomas and Tereza are reported. The fourth part, a second section entitled “Soul and Body,” focuses on the lack of privacy under totalitarian rule and Tereza's developing sense of self. Rebelling against Tomas's unabated philandering, Tereza initiates a sexual encounter with an engineer, though later regrets the incident when she begins to suspect he is an agent of the state who has staged the episode to blackmail her. She also dreams that Tomas takes her to a park in Prague, informing her that there she will find what she desires. He directs her to the top of Petrin Hill, where she discovers several men with rifles whose apparent function is to help people satisfy their longing to die; they accompany the self-condemned into the forest and shoot them beside their tree of choice. The fifth part, a second section entitled “Lightness and Weight,” focuses on Tomas and events set in motion by an essay he has written that links the story of Oedipus with issues of Czech political guilt. The seemingly fanciful and insignificant essay, published in a local journal before the Soviet occupation, reemerges as a dangerous liability in the hands of the new regime. Facing mounting pressure to recant and to implicate the publisher, Tomas resigns his medical position and takes up work as a humble window-washer in an effort to disappear from scrutiny. However, while on a job he is confronted by his admiring and long-absent son, Simon, and the editor of the journal, who together attempt to persuade Tomas to sign a petition demanding amnesty for Czech political prisoners. Tomas refuses and, to escape the ugliness and complications of Prague, he and Tereza decide to move to the country. The sixth part, “The Grand March,” is devoted to a delineation of political kitsch and Franz's ill-fated activism in Thailand, where he has joined a band of well-intentioned though ridiculously futile Western political protesters and is finally killed by a mugger in the streets of Bangkok. The discussion of kitsch is supplemented by comment on the death of Josef Stalin's son, Yakov, who commits suicide while detained in a Nazi prison camp rather than face embarrassment over his bowel movements. The seventh and final part, “Karenin's Smile,” returns to Tomas and Tereza, who have relocated to a collective farm where they have at last found a degree of contentment in the simplicity and routine of rural life. After the slow, emotionally grueling death of their dog, Karenin, they are killed in an auto accident, as earlier revealed in the letter from Simon to Sabina. In a final dream, Tereza imagines that Tomas is summoned by the authorities and shot. His shrinking corpse then transforms into a living rabbit that she brings with her on her return to her childhood home in Prague.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is primarily concerned with contradictory physical, emotional, and metaphysical aspects of human existence. The novel's central metaphor—lightness—derives from a dichotomy established by Greek philosopher Parmenides, who, according to the author-narrator, ascribed somewhat arbitrarily a positive value to lightness and a negative value to heaviness. The opposition of lightness (associated with freedom, choice, sexual pleasure, mobility) and weight (associated with fate, responsibility, love, stasis) thus forms the controlling motif in the novel. The quartet of characters each embody opposing aspects of lightness and weight: Tomas, a Don Juan figure, and Sabina, a bohemian artist, represent lightness and unfettered self-direction; Tereza and Franz, through their personal and political loyalties, represent heaviness and the burdens of love and commitment. As the novel develops, each of these characters begins to move toward opposite poles: Tomas resigns himself to Tereza and ends his infidelities; Sabina realizes the emptiness of her vagabond existence and fleeting relationships; Tereza develops a self-identity separate from Tomas and emerges from his control, as reflected in her dreams; and Franz ends his unhappy marriage to pursue sexual pleasure and his political ideals. This psychological modulation among the characters, the use of multiple perspectives, and repeating themes and concepts throughout the text produce a counterpoint effect that reflects the novel's musical structure. The novel also revolves around Nietzsche's “mad myth” of eternal recurrence, the idea that human life attains meaning only through the infinite repetition of events in one's life; by reliving our experiences and the effects of one's choices, life gains authenticity and transcends its seemingly ephemeral nature. The notion of recurrence is invoked throughout the novel in the German proverb “einmal ist keinmal,” translated as “once is no time at all.” Kundera also links the concept of eternal return with historical processes, particularly in the section “The Grand March,” whose title alludes to the idea of progressive historical change and fate, as opposed to a cyclical patterns of ascendancy, decline, and repetition in the development of civilization. A phrase from a Beethoven string quartet—“Es muss sein!,” translated as “It must be!”—appears throughout the novel as an affirmation of fate in the affairs of men and women. The themes of destiny, both personal and political, morality, and responsibility are also associated with the Oedipus myth and its dramatization in Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, another recurring leitmotif in the novel. The quest for self-definition and existential meaning is frequently linked with the portrayal of nudity and bodily functions. For example, Tereza's fears and insecurities are associated with her nakedness before Tomas and her mother's shamelessness. Likewise, defecation and excrement are repeatedly presented as emblematic of one's acceptance or denial of mortality and eroticism, also associated with Christian dualities of body and soul. Nakedness and aspects of voyeurism in the novel reflect the stark reality of life under political oppression, as spying, the absence of privacy and personal identity, and perpetual vulnerability at the hands of the state are familiar demoralizing conditions in Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia. The absurdity of totalitarianism, as well as the efforts of organized resistance under such a system, are reflected in Tomas's pointless demotion for allegedly advocating a cause he subsequently refuses to endorse; his ethical double-bind is thus a farce, though he is still compelled to weigh his personal and public duties, as are others under similar circumstances. Kundera's condemnation of “kitsch,” described in terms of the aesthetization and public expression of empty sentimentality, further indicts the false promises of political ideology—both communist and liberal democratic—and its lobotomizing effect on those under its influence. In the end, the unheroic deaths of Tomas and Tereza, as well as the random nature of Franz's murder, underscores the inherent limitations of human life despite one's best efforts to navigate its irreducible matrix of political, historical, and personal contingencies.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is highly regarded as a moving, sophisticated novel of political critique and speculative philosophy that unashamedly examines the essential mysteries of existence. An international best-seller and winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award in 1984, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is distinguished as both a critical and popular success. Viewed by many critics as among Kundera's finest work, along with Le livre du rire et de l'oubli (1980; The Book of Laughter and Forgetting), the novel is praised for its innovative narrative design and provocative metaphysical concerns. Jim Miller writes, “Kundera has raised the novel of ideas to a new level of dreamlike lyricism and emotional intensity.” Though Kundera has steadfastly rejected attempts by critics to label him a dissident writer, reviewers favorably comment on the novel's obvious political dimension, particularly its treatment of Czech history and repudiation of ideology in its various forms. While most commentators find Kundera's digressive style and high-minded meditations compelling, some regard such authorial interventions in the novel as burdensome and merely clever. Similarly, many critics appreciate Kundera's presentation of sympathetic characters, while others fault his protagonists as unconvincing game pieces for the author's ideas and narrative manipulations. Among the latter, Wendy Lesser describes The Unbearable Lightness of Being as “a bad book,” adding, however, that it is “a bad novel on a high level—extremely intelligent, quite witty, and very certain about its meanings. In fact, Kundera's novel is bad partly because its author knows too clearly and powerfully what he wants to say.” Despite such criticism, most commentators praise the novel's ambitious philosophical scope and Kundera's willingness to raise perplexing questions about the essence of life, regarded in itself as an antidote to the trivialization of kitsch. “For all its burning compassion, extraordinary intelligence, and dazzling artistry,” writes Thomas DePietro, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being leaves us with many questions, questions about love and death, about love and transcendence.”