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“The Unbearable Lightness of Being” a Novel by Milan Kundera

Ever since Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being was published in 1984, it became instantly popular with the readers. And, as of today, critics’ opinions as to what attracts readers to this particular novel vary rather substantially. Whereas; some critics explain novel’s popularity by the sheer progressiveness of ideas it promotes, others discuss the fact that Kundera’s masterpiece was able to win favor with reading audiences within the context of what represents this novel’s structural and semantic subtleties.

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Nevertheless, given the fact that, since the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, novel’s politically charged overtones became largely outdated, there are good reasons to believe that it is namely the second approach to assessing the actual essence of novel’s cult-status, which should be thought of as being the most conceptually appropriate. This suggestion, however, is not intended to undermine the practical value of Kundera’s work as such that reveals the true nature of a political sentimentalism, which author refers to as ‘kitsch’. In this paper, we will aim to substantiate the validity of such our hypothesis by conducting literary analysis of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and by reflecting upon how the analyzed literary elements of the novel affect its overall worth.

The foremost characteristic of Kundera novel’s plot is the fact that it is being deprived of a linearly defined suspense. The validity of this suggestion is best illustrated in novel’s Part III, when readers get to find out about Tomas and Thereza’s deaths, due to a car accident, from Simon’s letter to Sabina: “The road there wound through some hills, and their (Tomas and Thereza’s) pickup had crashed and hurtled down a steep incline. Their bodies had been crushed to a pulp” (66). Given the fact that in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the characters of Tomas and Sabina act as protagonists, by revealing the information about how their turbulent lives had ended, author intentionally shifted novel’s ‘climax’ towards its middle.

The reading of Pichova’s (1992) article, provides us with the insight into what had motivated Kundera to choose in favor of clearly unconventional manner for constructing novel’s plot: “By revealing the conclusion of the novel much earlier than expected, the narrator eliminates suspense and ‘lays bare’ his technique with all its complexities” (220). Apparently, author intentionally strived for his novel not to feature a classical narration, so that readers would be more likely to remain focused on novel’s philosophical sounding, rather than on its emotionally defined content. In its turn, this also explains why in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the narrator appears to be endowed with the powers of omnipresence.

At the same time, under no circumstances may the narrator’s omnipresence be referred to as thematically oppressive. In the article from which we have already quoted, Pichova states: “In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the narrator intentionally limits his powers to avoid subjugating his characters to the same totalitarian rule they try to escape on the thematic level” (217). In Kundera’s novel, narrator’s function is being concerned with guiding readers through unfolding of the plot by providing them with a so-called ‘advance notices’ at the beginning of every chapter, which in its turn, is supposed to help them to adopt a proper perspective onto significance of themes and motifs, contained in every particular chapter.

The following, is the illustrative example of how author utilizes an ‘advance notice’ at the beginning of Chapter 6 (Part I), in order to help readers to adopt a proper perceptional mood: “The unwritten contract of erotic friendship stipulated that Tomas should exclude all love from his life. The moment he violated that clause of the contract, his other mistresses would assume inferior status and become ripe for insurrection” (7). After that, follows the description of how Tereza went about breaking the rule of an ‘erotic contract’, which in its turn, allows readers to assess the true nature of a relationship between novel’s protagonists. Thus; whereas the plot of Kundera’s novel as best defined as non-linear, due to the fact that its action is being represented is spatially shifted mode, novel’s structure appears to be essentially open-ended.

The linguistic analysis of The Unbearable Lightness of Being points out to the fact that its sentences are being constructed in clear and straightforward manner, which makes it easier for the readers to assess their semantic significance. What also contributes to the perceptional clarity of novel’s language is the fact that Kundera builds phrases in spatially progressive manner – that is, he treats plot’s consequential developments as such that organically derive out of each other.

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The following quotation from The Unbearable Lightness of Being provides us with the insight on how author was able to ensure an easy reading of his novel: “Tomas ordered her (Tereza) to stand in the corner while he made love to Sabina. The sight of it caused Tereza intolerable suffering. Hoping to alleviate the pain in her heart by pains of the flesh, she jabbed needles under her fingernails” (8). As the reading of this particular quotation suggests, throughout the course of working on his novel, Kundera never ceased being aware of about the dialectical essence of a relation between causes and effects.

Nevertheless, given novel’s high literary value, which is being well recognized by the majority of critics, it comes as no surprise that, throughout its entirety, author had made point in utilizing metaphorical and allegorical language. According to Narrett (1992): “Kundera’s unreconstructed Romanticism presents yearning as the human inheritance… This conflict is at the heart of his tragic vision and allegorical aesthetics” (20). By making an extensive usage of a variety of allegorical and metaphorical techniques, Kundera was able to substantially increase novel’s emotional appeal.

The following are the examples of how author went about utilizing these techniques: “Her (Tereza’s) dreams recurred like themes and variations or television series” (10), “Now we can better understand the meaning of Tereza’s secret vice, her long looks and frequent glances in the mirror. It was a battle with her mother” (24). Thus, the foremost characteristic of novel’s language is the fact that, even though it is being associated with a strong semantic clarity, on one hand, it never ceases being literary rich, on another.

The most important theme, which is being explored throughout the course of the novel, is ‘lightness’ vs. ‘weight’. According to what it is being subtly implied in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the reason why the characters of Tomas and Sabina emanate ‘lightness’ is that they go about addressing life’s challenges in essentially spontaneous manner, while trying not to overly dramatize the actual significance of their existential stance. On the other hand, such characters as Simon and Tereza radiate ‘heaviness’ due to the apparent seriousness, through the lenses of which they perceive surrounding reality.

As it was rightly pointed out by Payne (2006), Tereza’s very appearances in the novel convey the message of ‘heaviness’: “When Tereza arrives again, unannounced, she comes with a ‘heavy suitcase’, obviously representing the heaviness of her presence and the commitment it seemed to entail for Tomas” (169). Hence, novel’s metaphysical question: “Is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?… What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?” (3). By juxtaposing earlier mentioned characters against each other, Kundera was able to produce a strong dramatic effect – thus, prompting readers to think of novel’s thematic significance as such that correlates with what they perceive to account for the significance of their own lives.

As Gurstein (2003) had noted: “Kundera’s genius lies in his ability to chronicle a world in which people, seeking the meaning of life within the narrow precincts of intimate relations, respect or fail to respect the limits that safeguard the private realm” (1262). And, due to the subtleties of narrator’s positioning in the novel, readers are being given the liberty to assess this particular theme from just about any perspective they would choose to.

Another important theme, which largely defines the quintessence of novel’s semiotics, is sexuality. According to what it is being implied by Kundera, men’s sexual desire can be compared to a skin-itch, which goes away after being scratched. On another hand, women’s sexuality is being represented as something that defines the very core of their existential identity, because author treats novel’s female characters as clearly incapable of distinguishing between love and sex. In its turn, this explains why, throughout the course of the novel, Tomas is shown growing increasingly weary of Tereza’s inability to detach herself mentally from her genitals: “Hadn’t he told her (Tereza) time and again that love and sexuality had nothing in common?” (81). Thus, it would not be much of an exaggeration to suggest that The Unbearable Lightness of Being contains a number of psychological insights into what accounts for the essence of a relationship between men and women.

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In his novel, Kundera also explores the theme of how politics affect people’s lives. As novel’s philosophical context implies, even though people’s exposal to an oppressive political ideology does undermine their chances to attain happiness, they should never become preoccupied with masochistic ‘savoring’ of the lack of political freedoms, because this would eventually lead them to grow into political extremists, which in its turn, would make them even more unhappy: “Extremes mean borders beyond which life ends, and a passion for extremism, in art and in politics, is a veiled longing for death” (50). Thus, there are many objective reasons to think of The Unbearable Lightness of Being as a novel that promotes the virtues of post-industrial living – apolitism, secularism and intellectualism.

The close examination of novel’s structural subtleties reveals that, even though The Unbearable Lightness of Being is being essentially the story about romantic/erotic relationships, it nevertheless does not feature internal monologues, on the part its characters, which should be thought as the foremost quality of novel’s characterization. In her article, Pichova explains this fact as follows: “The narrator in The Unbearable Lightness of Being is obviously close to the author… for he never immerses himself in the interior world of his characters” (224).

We can only subscribe to Pichova’s point of view, in this respect – because in the novel, the voice of narrator provides readers with rationalistic insight into objectiveness of plot’s developments, Kundera decided in favor of disposing the elements of psychological probing. After all, there is no need for the author to offer readers a continuous glimpse into workings of particular character’s mind, for as long as the qualitative essence of these workings is being revealed with the perfect clarity.

For example, even though in The Unbearable Lightness of Being the character of Franz plays rather important role in the novel, author never allowed this character to rationalize his affiliation with leftie agenda or his aesthetic inclinations – as the context of Kundera novel’s implies, Franz was inheritably predisposed towards addressing life’s challenges in a way he did: “In Franz the word light did not evoke the picture of a landscape basking in the soft glow of day; it evoked the source of light itself: the sun, a light bulb, a spotlight” (50). This is why; there could be no reconciliation between him and Sabina by definition.

Thus, it should be stressed out once again that, even though novel’s characters appear to be endowed with an ability to indulge in existentially liberating activities, it is namely the particulars of their genetic makeup and their gender affiliation that define these characters’ positioning in life. In its turn, this explain why novel’s protagonists Tomas and Tereza continued to emanate ‘lightness’ and ‘heaviness’ right to the time of their deaths. The same can be said about novel’s other characters, such as Simon and Franz, whose behavior throughout the course of the novel, appears being predetermined by the lessened extent of their intellectual flexibility. It is namely this, which should be thought of as the foremost aspect of novel’s characterization.

As we have already mentioned, the plot in The Unbearable Lightness of Being is non-linear. In its turn, this partially explains why novel’s spatial perspective is being continuously shifted from Czechoslovakia, to Switzerland, then to Czechoslovakia again, then to France and eventually to U.S., where Sabina settles down. Nevertheless, unlike what it is being usually the case with conventional works of fiction, in his novel Kundera appears to deliberately withhold from attributing too much significance to the actual settings, amidst which the action takes place.

For example, immediately after having mentioned Sabina’s immigration to Switzerland, author proceeds to describe her experiences in Paris – yet, these experiences appear to be solely concerned with the particulars of how she was growing increasingly apolitical: “A year or two after emigrating, she happened to be in Paris on the anniversary of the Russian invasion of her country. A protest march had been scheduled, and she felt driven to take part… She lasted no more than a few minutes in the parade” (53). Nevertheless, the fact that in The Unbearable Lightness of Being the semantic significance of settings is being deliberately diminished makes perfectly logical sense, because it subtly supports author’s idea as to conceptual irrelevance of utilizing this literary element as the vehicle for advancing philosophical ideas.

As Payne had put it: “Kundera’s novel… invites an eschatological/ethical reading… In this respect, the role of settings appears only supplementary” (151). Given the fact novel’s themes and motifs are being clearly concerned with the exploration of an idea of how one may achieve a complete detachment from ‘heaviness’, it had naturally predisposed author towards underrating the contextual significance of settings. Hence novel’s developmental staticism – even though novel’s characters continuously find themselves traveling from a country to country, it does not seem to affect the workings of their psyches.

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One of Kundera novel’s most memorable qualities is the fact that its imagery is meant to convey a variety of clearly symbolic messages. The validity of this statement can be best explored in scenes when Sabina’s bowler hat is being mentioned – apparently, this hat never ceased being the part of her identity: “Sabina went on and on about the bowler hat and her grandfather until, emptying her third glass, she said I’ll be right back and disappeared into the bathroom” (33). This is the reason why, every time Kundera makes mentioning of Sabina’s bowler hat, readers grow subconsciously aware that the unfolding of the plot may take a conceptually significant turn. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the image of bowler hat symbolizes the integrity of Sabina’s individuality.

Essentially similar thesis can be applied in regards to the recurrent image of cactuses, which is being brought up in order emphasize Tereza’s inability to actualize herself in a society, supposedly liberated of ‘male oppression’: “Only cactuses had perennial appeal. And cactuses were of no interest to her… All of a sudden Tereza felt annoyed: My husband is my life, not cactuses” (37). Thus, just as it is being the case with the image of bowler hat, the image of cactuses cannot be discussed as ‘thing in itself’, quite unrelated to the semantic context of the novel. In its turn, this points out to the fact that in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, imagery serves the function of emphasizing the significance of novel’s themes and motifs. This observation correlates rather well with many critics’ view on Kundera’s novel as such that represents not only high literary but also high philosophical value.

We believe that the earlier conducted analysis of The Unbearable Lightness of Being substantiates the soundness of paper’s initial hypothesis as to the fact that Kundera novel’s popularity with the readers has been objectively predetermined from the time of its publishing. It is not only that in this novel, author was able to provide them with a comprehensive clue as to what accounts for the qualitative essence of a relationship between men and women, but he had also proven himself being endowed with the prophetic vision on what would eventually become the realities of post-industrial living, well before the end of Cold War.

In his book, Solomon (2004) implies that, despite its affiliation with the genre of romantic fiction, The Unbearable Lightness of Being may well be thought of as the literary work that helps readers to realize the sheer counter-productiveness of ‘political sentimentalism’, which flourishes on the soil of people’s intellectual marginalization: “Kundera… is concerned with a particular kind of political propaganda that intentionally eclipses harsh realities with emotion and uses sweet sentiments to preclude political criticism” (12).

Thus, the specifics of how in this particular novel Kundera proceeded with establishing its structural and semantic integrity, should not be discussed outside of what represented author’s ideological agenda, throughout the course of novel’s writing. And, the reading of The Unbearable Lightness of Being suggests that this agenda never ceased being concerned with author’s willingness to promote secular and apolitical mode of one’s existence (‘lightness’) as most ethically appropriate.

Works Sited

Gurstein, Rochelle “The Waning of Shame in Modern Life: Kundera’s Novels”. Social Research 70.4 (2003): 1259-1276.

Kundera, Milan “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”. (1984). Knigka.Su. Web.

Narrett, Eugene “Surviving History: Milan Kundera’s Quarrel with Modernism”. Modern Language Studies 22.4 (1992): 4-24.

Payne, Michael “The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Or: Problematising the Ethical”. Religion & Theology 13.2 (2006):150-174.

Pichova, Hana “The Narrator in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being”. The Slavic and East European Journal 36.2 (1992): 217-226. Solomon, Robert. In Defense of Sentimentality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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