The Unbearable Lightness of Being Analysis

Milan Kundera

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

When Milan Kundera’s fourth novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, appeared in English translation in 1980, few American readers were familiar with his work; indeed, few had so much as heard his name. By the time The Unbearable Lightness of Being was published, three and a half years later, Kundera had become one of the most visible figures on the international literary scene, the subject of many feature articles, interviews, and even (in France and England at least) television programs. The Unbearable Lightness of Being was a number-one best-seller in France (where Czech exile Kundera has lived for ten years) and appeared on best-seller lists in the United States. Kundera’s novel was a critical success as well, widely and favorably reviewed, and was the winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award for fiction in 1984.

Two striking features distinguish The Unbearable Lightness of Being. First, it is a novel in which reflective thought plays an unusually prominent role. Kundera offers not only many arresting “ideas” (aphorisms, pensées) but also extended exercises in thinking (arguments, “thought experiments,” even brief essays). The second feature, related to the first, is what Kundera has referred to as the novel’s “polyphonic” structure. Polyphony, as Kundera defines it, is the fusion of “philosophy, narrative, and dream” and “the specifically novelistic essay” into “a single music.”

Ironically, the very features that give The Unbearable Lightness of Being its distinctive character have been ignored, downplayed, or misrepresented in most reviews of the novel. There are two reasons for this failure, one trivial and one not. The former is simply a matter of space; it is possible to do only so much in a short review. The latter, however, is a matter of widely held and generally unexamined assumptions concerning the role of ideas in fiction. While such issues cannot be pursued here, it must be noted that Anglo-American modernism (as opposed to the Central European modernism of Robert Musil and Hermann Broch) has as one of its ten commandments a prohibition against ideas in the novel. Many reviewers, like many critics and indeed many novelists, accept this dogma without question.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is divided into seven parts: part 1, “Lightness and Weight”; part 2, “Soul and Body”; part 3, “Words Misunderstood”; part 4, “Soul and Body”; part 5, “Lightness and Weight”; part 6, “The Grand March”; and part 7, “Karenin’s Smile.” In turn, each part is divided into numbered subsections of varying length. (In a Paris Review interview, Kundera refers to these subsections as “chapters”; accordingly, that usage will be employed here.)

This structure, with its suggestion of theme and variation, seems to invite the reader to find a musical analogy—an invitation confirmed in Kundera’s remarks on the novel:The chapters themselves mustcreate a little world of their own; they must be relatively independent. That is why I keep pestering my publishers to make sure that the numbers are clearly visible and that the chapters are well separated. The chapters are like the measures of a musical score!Each part could have a musical tempo indication.

Such musical analogies, insofar as they are supposed to correspond to the reader’s experience of the text in more than the most general fashion, are notoriously dubious. Nevertheless, Kundera’s remarks help to convey the feel of his novel in a way that most of the reviews have failed to do. As one reads the book, one is always aware of its intellectual structure. This is not a submerged symbolic structure such as students are taught to recognize in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; it is quite explicit. To summarize the “action” of Kundera’s novel within the scope of a review, one must abstract the narrative from its structural context. The effect, whatever the reviewer’s intentions, is to imply that what really matters in the novel is “the story.”

Surely, however, what “really matters” in a novel that calls itself The Unbearable Lightness of Being is its illumination of being. In a brilliant essay in The New York Review of Books entitled “The Novel and Europe,” Kundera suggests that the rise of science—“which, in reducing the world to an object of technical and mathematical investigation,put die Lebenswelt, the world of concrete living, beyond its pale”—has been paralleled by the development of the novel: “Cervantes gave birth to a great European art which is nothing other than the perpetual investigation of the being ignored by science.” The phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, Heidegger’s diagnosis of “the forgetting of being,” was anticipated, Kundera says, in “four centuries of novel-writing.”

While unhesitatingly affirming the cognitive authority of the novel to “shed light on existence” (he defines the history of the novel as “the sequence of [its] discoveries”), Kundera is, however, equally emphatic in his seemingly contradictory insistence that “The novelis a territory where one does not make assertions; it is a territory of play and of hypotheses. Reflection within the novel is hypothetical by its very essence.” In practice, though, what does this mean? In what sense is the reader of Kundera’s novel intended to regard its various reflections as “hypothetical”? These questions are not extrinsic to the novel, imported from the classroom; rather, they are the very questions that must arise in any responsible reading of Kundera’s text. It is not merely a matter of extracting the novel’s ideas.

To read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, one must (whatever one makes of his paeans to Laurence Sterne, Denis Diderot, and the novel as play) take seriously Kundera’s project for the novel as a form. To do so, one is not required to share Kundera’s vision of human life and its place in the universe—not at all; one must,...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Prague. Capital city of Czechoslovakia and home of Tomas, a successful surgeon and one of the novel’s two protagonists, and the primary setting. At the beginning of the narrative Tomas welcomes a young waitress named Tereza, whom he met in a small provincial town some months before, into his flat on the presumption that she has moved to Prague to find work. Later he realizes that she has actually come to Prague to pursue a romantic relationship with him and that finding a job there is a mere pretense to gain access into his life. Although Prague promises greater financial and cultural opportunities for Tereza than her provincial home, her main goal is to win the love of Tomas.

In Tereza’s mind, location is inconsequential—she must live with Tomas, and feels that her love for him will flourish no matter where it may take them. By the time she reaches Prague it has already taken her from her home and family, but Tereza is unmoved by the loss. A fatalist to the end, she believes from the first time she sees Tomas that he is her destiny. She sacrifices everything she knows in order to be a part of his life.

Kundera’s choice of Prague as the novel’s main setting provides him with a landscape for commentary on the challenges of everyday life in a Soviet satellite nation during the final years of the Cold War. According to the narrator, the people of postwar Prague have an “inferiority complex” because, unlike other European cities, theirs was almost completely spared the physical ravages of World War II. Most of Prague’s historical architecture remained intact, and Prague was not forced to restore them after the war. Ironically, whereas most European cities enjoyed a renaissance as they rebuilt, Prague grew stylistically and spiritually stagnant. In this sense, the Soviet occupation seemed the fitting capstone to a process of moral...

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

The History of Czechoslovakia
The land that became Czechoslovakia was actually separate regions within the Austro-Hungarian...

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Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

One of the most interesting devices that Kundera uses in The Unbearable Lightness of Being is his creation of a...

(The entire section is 691 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Kundera mixes modes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being the way he did in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, but in some ways The...

(The entire section is 100 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being ought to engender lively discussions, as long as the outspoken eroticism present in this novel is dealt...

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Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being deals with the same social concern as The Book of Laughter and Forgetting — life under Czechoslovakian...

(The entire section is 141 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1960s: Czechoslovakia is firmly part of the Warsaw Pact, a military alliance that includes the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc...

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Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

In part six of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera writes at length about the notion of "kitsch." Define kitsch. Find examples...

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Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

With its more traditional approach, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is reminiscent of numerous novels from the nineteenth century. As good...

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(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being was made into a film of the same name in 1988, directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Daniel Day-Lewis as...

(The entire section is 118 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being was adapted as a film in 1988. The film was directed by Phillip Kaufman, and stars Daniel Day-Lewis...

(The entire section is 57 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Kundera's The Art of the Novel (1986) offers insight into Kundera's aesthetics of fiction and theories of the development of the...

(The entire section is 170 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Banerjee, Maria Nemcová, Terminal Paradox: The Novels of Milan Kundera, Grove Press, 1990, p. 206.


(The entire section is 263 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Aji, Aron, ed. Milan Kundera and the Art of Fiction: Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 1992. Useful collection of essays on the novels, including The Unbearable Lightness of Being, dealing with narrative technique and characterization.

Banerjee, Maria Nemcova. Terminal Paradox: The Novels of Milan Kundera. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990. This philosophical and psychological analysis contains a comprehensive chapter on The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Well worth reading for its insights into Kundera’s technique and characters.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVI, August 8,...

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