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The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) is a philosophical novel by Czech writer Milan Kundera (1929-present). Set against the backdrop of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the book follows the story of two men and two women as they struggle to find meaning in life. Kundera uses the characters to explore contrasting philosophical approaches to living.
The novel opens with the narrator's meditation on the philosophical concept of eternal recurrence. He contrasts viewing life as a heavy or light thing and wonders which is better. The novel's events unfold in a non-linear narrative as four intertwined characters face the joys and pains of living. The narrator often interjects with discussions of philosophical concepts and their relation to the characters.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being deals with various philosophical concepts. One of the book's most essential concepts comes from German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Nietzsche's idea of eternal recurrence, or eternal return, is taken from his book, The Gay Science (1882).
Eternal recurrence asserts that time moves in a cycle rather than a linear straight line. In this idea, all events throughout existence have happened before and will happen again in an infinite loop.
With eternal recurrence, every mistake or success in a person's life is repeated innumerable times, giving even the most minor elements of life massive importance. Nietzsche considered this weight to be the "heaviest of burdens"1.
This heaviness and struggle to create meaning is one of the main struggles most characters face in The Unbearable Lightness Of Being. Kundera contrasts Nietzsche's idea of heaviness with the idea of lightness from ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides. In the 5th century BCE, Parmenides argued that the world could be divided into opposites; dark/light, fine/coarse, heavy/light, etc. He viewed heaviness as negative and lightness as positive. Therefore it was better to view life as light. If all events only occur once, people are free from the burden of responsibility and meaning.
In the book's opening section, does the narrator display a personal preference for either the heavy or light approach to living?
The novel's protagonist is a successful surgeon named Tomáš who enjoys a carefree life in 1960s Prague. He enjoys one-night stands and meaningless affairs until he falls in love with a waitress named Tereza. After the couple is married, Tomáš continues to sleep with other women, reasoning that love and sex are different. Tereza knows about his infidelities but finds herself unable to leave. When she plucks up the courage to confront Tomáš's long-term mistress, Sabina, she ends up developing a friendship with the talented artist.
As political tensions rise in Prague, it's revealed that Tomáš published a piece criticizing communism and its sympathizers in his country. When the Soviet Union invades Prague, he is labeled a dissident and flees to Zurich. Believing this to be a fresh start, Tereza is heartbroken when Tomáš continues to cheat. Unable to continue in Zurich, she returns to occupied Prague. Tomáš initially enjoys his new freedom but soon reasons that Tereza is part of his destiny and returns to Prague to join her.
Tomáš is reluctant to return to Prague as he knows he will never be forbidden from leaving the country again. How does he convince himself that Tereza is part of his destiny?
The narrative switches to Tomáš's mistress Sabina, who fled the Soviet invasion to Geneva. She begins an affair with an unhappily married professor named Franz. The couple struggles to communicate but enjoys each other's company. When Franz leaves his wife for Sabina, she immediately rejects him. Initially heartbroken, Franz soon realizes he was obsessed with the idea of Sabina rather than the reality of a relationship with her. Franz soon recovers and begins a relationship with one of his students.
Back in Prague, Tomáš continues to conduct extramarital affairs. Tereza feels more desperate and, attempting to understand her husband's ways, sleeps with a random stranger at work. The narrative flashes back to Tereza's unhappy childhood, where her mother's sexual openness caused Tereza's body image and self-esteem issues.
Like Tomáš, the novel's author Milan Kundera was critical of the regime in Czechoslovakia and was expelled from the Communist party twice!
Meanwhile, the new communist regime demands Tomáš sign a declaration denouncing his article. After refusing, he is stripped of his job and forced to find work as a window cleaner. He also refuses his estranged son's request to write anti-communist articles for the underground resistance. Tomáš does not want to be a puppet for either the establishment or the resistance and opts to maintain his sense of freedom by moving out of Prague.
Tereza and Tomáš move to a small village in the countryside, where Tomáš finds a job transporting farm workers and equipment. The couple settles into a simpler life in the countryside, and their bond grows stronger as Tomáš is finally able to remain faithful to his wife. Tereza begins to find peace with herself and the world as the couple lives happily for two years until they are killed in a car accident.
The narrative flashes to ten years in the future, with Sabina living happily in America. As an outspoken critic of communism, she discusses her hatred of the idea of Kitsch. She sees communism as ultimately kitschy and ugly. Reflecting on her life, Sabina enjoys the freedom and lack of commitment she exercised but also feels lonely and disconnected from others.
Kitsch refers to art or style which is overly garish and considered tasteless. Sabina believes that Kitsch art is excessively optimistic and neglects the negative realities of human nature.
Back in Geneva, Franz lives happily with his student. One day, inspired by the memories of Sabina's revolutionary spirit, he decides to attend a political protest. At the rally, he is attacked and left paralyzed. As the bed-ridden Franz desperately wants to reunite with his young love, his scorned wife takes charge of his care. She rationalizes that his infidelity was a midlife crisis and looks after him until his death.
The narrative flashes back to Tomáš's son, Simon, as he takes care of Tomáš and Tereza's funeral arrangements. Simon arranges for a bible quote inscribed on Tomáš's tombstone. It is revealed he still talks to Sabina, and as they discuss death, Sabina tells him she wants to be cremated and scattered to the winds.
The final section flashes back to Tomáš and Tereza's peaceful time in the countryside. As Tereza's dog slowly dies of cancer, she recollects the dog's loyalty and love through the years. She acknowledges it has been easier to love the dog than Tomáš because the dog asks for nothing in return. The novel ends with Tomáš and Tereza meeting some friends for dinner.
Each character's approach to life is influenced by their mindset. While some embrace lightness, others see themselves as shackled by heaviness. Kundera uses each of the main characters to explore the contrast between the two approaches.
A surgeon and an intellectual, Tomáš continually cheats on his wife. He justifies these affairs as an inescapable part of his natural behavior and a quest for deeper understanding. While he sees this as lightness, it becomes a crushing burden. Because Tomáš wants to be free of any political ideology or belief system, he refuses offers from the communist regime and the underground movement. He pays heavily for this, losing his job and life in Prague. However, when he moves to the country and becomes a window washer, he finds a lightness that helps him to remain loyal to Tereza.
Tereza desperately wants to attach meaning and weight to everything in her life. She even views Tomáš's affairs as a weight she must carry. Her approach to life stems from childhood trauma. Tereza's promiscuous mother would often walk around the house naked and publicly boasted about her sex life. She believed there should be no shame attached to nudity or the human body and denied Tereza any basic sense of privacy, even going so far as to have the bathroom door removed.
This lack of privacy forced Tereza to escape into the world of literature and art. In order to cope with this strange upbringing, Tereza viewed her body and soul as separate entities. While her body is light and meaningless, her soul is heavily weighed by the need to find meaning. Tereza attempts to find lightness by sleeping with a stranger but ultimately finds it unbearable.
Sabina's lightness is expressed by her refusal to conform to social expectations. Unlike Tereza, she attaches little meaning to ideas of fidelity and commitment and is sexually open. As Tomáš's mistress, she sees their relationship as solely physical and does not want to be burdened with ideas of love. This lightness allows Sabina to detach from people and places easily. It also leaves her lonely and isolated at the end of the novel.
Franz is a bookish professor in Geneva who sees Sabina's lightness as an escape from his loveless marriage. After falling madly in love and being rejected by Sabina, Franz continues to search for meaning. He sees himself as part of humanity's march towards progress. He becomes involved in a political movement to create responsibility. Idealistic about love and politics, Franz is often easily influenced by others.
Kundera uses the lives of Tomáš, Tereza, Sabina, and Franz to explore the contrasting approaches to living. He employs the dichotomy of heaviness and lightness to examine the human condition.
Kundera uses the contrast between lightness and weights to explore different approaches to living and the repercussions of these viewpoints. The heaviness sees life's events as predetermined and inescapable. Following the idea of eternal return, all of life's actions are given a great weight of responsibility and importance. Throughout the novel, characters are shown to struggle with this weight. Tereza is continually desperate to find meaning and tries to do so by attaching significant importance to her marriage.
In contrast to this heaviness, the light approach sees life as something that only happens once. Because life is so fleeting, humans are freed from the grave importance of eternal return. Therefore people should reject the idea that there is one true path to find and focus instead on enjoying life. Sabina is the embodiment of this approach. She rejects relationships and limitations and prides herself on being independent.
Free from commitment to people or even her home nation, she can express herself in her art and sexuality. Sabina enjoys the lightness of life that other characters desperately want. For example, both Tomáš and Franz use affairs as attempts to live a lighter, carefree life.
However, this lightness comes at a cost. Tomáš's womanizing becomes an addiction and threatens his happiness with Tereza. Franz frees himself from the heavy burden of an unhappy marriage but eventually wants to find weight and meaning. When Franz attempts to find this through political activism, he ends up paralyzed and trapped in his body. Even Sabina, the embodiment of light, ends the novel alone, imagining a life in a stable relationship and with a family. Ultimately, Kundera shows that the pursuit of lightness and the freedom the characters enjoy in the light eventually becomes unbearable.
The Unbearable Lightness Of Being is a blend of several different genres. It is a philosophical novel that uses the characters to explore more significant concepts about how to live life.
A philosophical novel, or work of philosophical fiction, is a book that uses its characters and/or plots to explore larger philosophical concepts. Famous works of philosophical fiction include Samuel Beckett's (1906-1989) Waiting for Godot (1953) and Invisible Man (1952) by Ralph Ellison (1913-1994).
As well as Nietchze's concept of eternal return, Parmenides' idea of lightness forms an important underpinning for the novel's central message. The contrast between the two is explored throughout the book as the narrator interrupts the action to provide his analysis of how the character's actions reflect the philosophical ideas. By using the elements of philosophical fiction, Kundera can convey his thoughts on the human condition.
Metafiction is a literary genre that draws attention to its fictional nature. While works of fiction attempt to create a realistic presentation of made-up events, metafiction works openly explore the writing process. Famous examples of metafiction works are Kurt Vonnegut's (1922-2007) Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and Paul Auster's (1947-Present) New York Trilogy (1986).
Though it is never explicitly stated, the narrator is assumed to be Kundera himself. While most third-person narratives unfold in a detached manner, Kundera often uses narration to analyze his writing and illustrate the novel's deeper themes. He openly admits in the narration that the characters and events of the story are fictional but uses them to provide commentary on his views of life.
By acknowledging the fiction of the work, Kundera can openly address the reader and share his judgments on the character's actions. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, readers are often reminded they are reading a book, and Kundera sometimes questions them. The author's use of non-linear narrative through flashbacks and time jumps reflects Nietzsche's idea of eternal return; the book's various storylines are able to weave through time, in and out of each other because these events will reoccur endlessly.
The book's ending also demonstrates this idea of infinite reoccurrence; while Tomáš and Tereza died earlier in the book, the narrative returns to their time in the countryside.
The novel's narrator has a distinct voice and is often forthright about his own thoughts and feelings on the book's characters. Here are some meaningful quotes from the narrator's perspective.
"...the absolute absence of a burden causes a man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant." - (Part 1, ch. 2)
If man frees himself from the idea that all life's events will repeat infinitely, he will be granted a freeing sense of lightness. However, while this lightness is at first liberating and uplifting, it does come with a downside. When an individual's actions have no lasting impact, they are at risk of becoming unimportant and meaningless. Some of the novel's characters find that a life of lightness actually comes with its own heaviness.
"Her drama was a drama not of heaviness but of lightness. What fell to her lot was not the burden, but the unbearable lightness of being." - (Part 3 , ch. 10)
The novel's narrator discusses Sabina's lightness as "unbearable" at several points. Sabina prides herself on not having attachments or commitments. Throughout the book, she easily detaches herself from situations and people. Yet this freedom comes at a cost; Sabina sometimes feels that a life of only lightness lacks meaning and connection.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being was written by Czech writer Milan Kundera.
The novel's title refers to the idea that living a life free from commitment to others has a sense of lightness that can be liberating. However, the novel warns that this approach to living can also come with a lack of attachment which has its own unbearable weight.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being follows the lives of four people, two men and two women, as their lives intertwine after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being represents the idea that a light approach to living (no commitments) also comes with an unbearable weight of emptiness.
At the start of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tomáš is 40 years old.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is an example of _________ fiction.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being explores the philosophical concept of which German thinker?
In which Eastern European country is The Unbearable Lightness of Being set?
The novel's protaganist, Tomáš, is labeled a dissident by the Communism regime for which action?
Writing a critical article
Which character best embodies the lightness in the novel's title?
The novel's title refers to the idea that a life free from commitment and connections has its own burden.
At the end of the novel, Franz is happily back together with his wife.
Tereza is able to separate her body and soul. Which does she find to contain heaviness?
When Tomáš and Tereza move to the country, Tomáš is finally able to remain faithful.
After losing his job as a surgeon, Tomáš moves to the country and finds work as a ___________.
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