The Unbearable Lightness of Being
by Milan Kundera is a novel told in seven parts. The first part, called “Lightness and Weight,” begins with Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return and with what Nietzsche calls einmal ist keinmal. Basically, this means that something that happens only once might as well not have happened. Nietzsche says that the eternal return is a heavy burden—the heaviest, actually—but without it, life is meaningless.
The reader then meets Tomas. Tomas is a surgeon, and he’s in love. The object of his affections is a young woman named Tereza. Despite his love for her, he engages in relationships he refers to as erotic friendships. Tereza is devastated by these affairs. Here, the theme of weight and lightness are evident. Weight is associated with Tereza’s love, and lightness with Tomas’s. Despite the distress Tomas’s mistresses cause Tereza, she and Tomas marry. Together they get a puppy, named Karenin. Tomas continues to have affairs; especially significant is his erotic friendship with Sabina, who is an artist. She possesses a deep understanding of Tomas and even becomes a good friend of Tereza’s.
In 1968, the Russians occupy Czechoslovakia, causing Sabina to leave for Switzerland. A Swiss doctor repeatedly calls Tomas, asking him to come to Switzerland too. He and Tereza move to Zurich, where they flourish for six months. When Tereza finds out that Tomas is still seeing Sabina, she leaves for Prague, and Tomas follows.
The second part of the novel, “Soul and Body,” retells the story so far from Tereza’s point of view. The reader learns a lot about Tereza’s family. Her father died in jail as a political prisoner, and her mother was abusive. Kundera also shares Tereza’s dreams, which are troubling and usually include Tomas. At the end of part two, Sabina and Tereza are becoming close friends, and Sabina gets Tereza a job at the magazine where she works. They photograph one another nude in Sabina’s studio.
Part three is titled “Words Misunderstood.” It opens with Franz, who is a professor living and teaching in Geneva. Franz and Sabina are having an affair; Franz does not love his wife, Marie-Claude. Franz and Sabina frequently misunderstand one another. For example, Franz sees music as a beautiful art form, but for Sabina, it’s just noise. Their inability to connect leads Sabina to leave both Franz and Switzerland. She goes to Paris, and ultimately, to the U.S. While in Paris, Sabina receives a letter. It’s from Tomas’s son, who tells her that both Tomas and Tereza died in a car accident. Meanwhile, Franz begins a romantic relationship with a student and takes an active role in politics.
In part four, “Body and Soul,” Franz tells Marie-Claude about his affair. Tomas is working as a window washer and Tereza is working at a bar. They almost never see one another because they have different schedules. Tereza realizes that Tomas is seeing another woman, and this realization weighs on her. When she meets an engineer at the bar, she engages in a sexual encounter with him. She realizes that he is a spy for the state, and feels the pressure of living in a totalitarian environment.
“Lightness and Weight,” which is part five, explains how Tomas came to lose his job at the hospital. He’d written a letter to the editor of a journal which he was asked to recant when the oppressive regime took over. His refusal means he must resign from his job, so everyone—including his friends and family—think he is protesting the totalitarian regime. Simon, the editor of the journal, asks Tomas to sign a letter that demands the release of Czech political prisoners; Tomas refuses to sign. He brings Tereza to a farm in the country to get away from political intrigue.
Part six, or “The Grand March,” involves kitsch—in this case, communist kitsch, which can be defined as an absence of beauty as a form of forced conformity. This part of the story follows Franz, who travels with a group of intellectuals to Thailand. Their mission is to protest the violations of human rights in Cambodia. After he’s mugged, Franz is transported back to Switzerland where he dies in a hospital.
In the seventh and final part, titled “Kerenin’s Smile,” Kundera shows the reader life on the farm for Tomas and Tereza. Kerenin, the dog they got shortly after getting married, is old now, and dying of cancer. Both Tomas and Tereza are deeply wounded by Kerenin’s death. Tomas has finally given up his mistresses, and Tereza seeks forgiveness for making him unhappy, though he tells her that he was happy with her on the farm. Their last few hours spent alive are thus spent in happiness, together.