In many ways, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a more traditional novel than The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. It, too, mixes genres and is tied together by variations on a series of themes: lightness and heaviness, body and soul, vertigo and eternal return, the Grand March. It also tells several clearly related stories about four fully developed characters: the waitress/photographer Tereza, the doctor Tomas, the painter Sabina, and the professor Franz. This novel does not follow the conventions of the realistic novel: The fact of the main characters’ deaths is revealed long before it occurs, thereby undermining the plot’s suspense; a major character is introduced toward the end of the novel and then disappears; and a section is told from the point of view of Tereza and Tomas’s dog. It does, however, create and resolve a central conflict among these characters, and it does occur within a recognizable social and historical context.
The main characters are carefully paired, both romantically and thematically. Tereza and Tomas, Tomas and Sabina, and Sabina and Franz are each involved in love affairs. Tereza and Franz are both associated with the theme of weight and heaviness; Tomas and Sabina, with the theme of lightness. Weight and heaviness are associated with the soul, commitment, seriousness, responsibility; lightness, with the body, betrayal, infidelity, and selfishness. Through Tereza’s influence, in the course of the novel Tomas makes the moral journey from lightness to heaviness. Sabina and Franz remain largely unchanged.
Tereza first comes to Prague from the country because of her love for Tomas, a man whose personal life is dominated by his numerous sexual conquests. When they and Sabina join the flood of émigrés after the Russian invasion and arrive in Switzerland, Sabina finds Tereza’s counterpart in Franz. When Tereza feels adrift in Zurich and returns to Czechoslovakia, Tomas follows her, although he has lost his position at the hospital and is forced to become a window washer. Although his commitment to her is real, he continues to spend every free moment in dalliances with other women until his love for Tereza finally leads him to agree to leave the city and its temptations for a collective farm. There, they eventually die together in a truck accident. Sabina rejects Franz’s desire for commitment and becomes a fashionable artist who travels throughout Europe and America. Franz joins a group of European leftists who travel to Cambodia, drawn by the idea of the Grand March of international revolution, which he sees as somehow related to his love for Sabina; there, he is fatally injured.
As Kundera tells the story, the personal and sexual lives of these four characters are intimately bound up with the social and political realities of Czechoslovakia before and after the Russian invasion. He presents vivid glimpses of the Prague Spring, of the Russian invasion, of post-1968 life in Prague, of the immigration of Czechs to the West, and of Western political attitudes toward émigrés and toward the idea of revolutionary change. Moreover, in spite of his many comments about the unreality of fictional characters, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being he creates four believable and interesting characters whose fates matter to the reader. As a consequence, perhaps, this work has been the most widely read and highly praised of his novels.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a complex postmodernist novel, at once political, philosophical, and erotic. Milan Kundera’s characters live in a world of irrevocable choices and fortuitous events, where the public and private spheres overlap and impinge upon each other. In this novel of ideas, the characters’ actions are viewed through the narrator’s erudite perspective and in terms of a number of cultural allusions, including Parmenides, Sophocles, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Leo Tolstoy.
The allusions to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1875-1877) are of particular importance in
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