Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 407

Fidelity and betrayal operate on both the personal and political levels in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Kundera examines not only the metaphysics of two couples’ personal relationships but also the complex political scene in Czechoslovakia before and after the Soviet invasion of 1968. The Communist coup of 1948 is seen as a betrayal of Czechoslovakia’s right to self-determination, as an exercise in criminal futility by enthusiasts who thought they were on the road to paradise. Unfortunately, paradise never arrived, and the enthusiasts had to account for their murders and betrayals. President Antonin Novotny and the other Czech Stalinists who protested that they were innocent because they “didn’t know” were at least as guilty as Oedipus, who, Tomas argues, was punished for his crimes even though he was unaware at first of his real identity. The final betrayal comes in August, 1968, when Leonid Brezhnev directs the Warsaw Pact armies to invade Czechoslovakia to put an end to the reforms of Dubcek’s “socialism with a human face” because those reforms threaten neighboring regimes. The “Es muss sein” of Beethoven becomes the Marxist-Leninist alibi of historical inevitability for the numerous crimes of repression against unwilling client states.

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After Tereza returns to Prague, she no longer blames Dubcek for his weakness in capitulating to Soviet pressure. She realizes that she belongs among the weak, among her people, suffering from humiliation and forced military occupation. She feels attracted to weakness, like love, as to a vertigo. Her falling in love is likened to a fear of vertigo, a weakness that asserts its superior strength over Tomas’ casual promiscuity. For Kundera’s characters, there are no easy choices, and each choice bears painful consequences.

The texture of this novel is as rich and complex as its multiple themes. Kundera blends the political and personal lives of his characters, using a fragmented narrative that forces the reader to reconstruct the plot. His narrative technique is circular rather than linear. Two of the seven sections repeat themselves almost as theme and variation. Dreams also serve as an important source of insight about the characters’ personalities and motives. Sabina’s comment about her paintings—“On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth”—expresses Kundera’s novelistic style as well. The novel, his narrator remarks, “is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become.” Literature and politics coalesce in a world where every private act and gesture is political.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 266

Despite its political observations. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in contrast to The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, is much more philosophical than political. The philosophical themes are introduced in the first few pages, with speculations on Nietzsche's idea of eternal return (rejected), Parmenides' theory of opposites (weight/ lightness, and so forth), and the German adage Einmal ist keinmal ("what happens but once . . . might as well not have happened at all"). These speculations lead to the shocking conclusion that "in this world everything is pardoned in advance and therefore everything cynically permitted" — hence "the unbearable lightness of being." Kundera seems to accept the "profound moral perversity" of this conclusion, but in fact it is only a straw man that the rest of the book is devoted to proving wrong.

From an existential point of view, "the unbearable lightness of being" implies an even greater burden of moral responsibility. What happens but once requires careful choices whose consequences one then has to live with. Tomas...

(The entire section contains 2014 words.)

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