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Literary Analysis of the Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a book written by Milan Kundera and published in 1984.  It is a compelling love story, a must-read that is both touching and sad. This is a novel whose context is set in the late sixties up to the eighties in the communist run Czechoslovakia. It basically explores the themes of love and politics through an in-depth use of various literary devices such as symbolism, imagery and allegory. This has been widely discussed in here-in under the crucial theme of fate in relation to love.

In evaluating the literary device of symbolism, imagery and allegory, the concept of lightness, weight and eternal return is well brought out by the German phrase ‘es muss sein’ which implies ‘it must be.’ Kundera explains the origin of the phrase as a motif from the Beethoven's songs. It came up when Tomas was debating after Tereza left him in Zurich as to whether to return to Prague. He phrases the term to his boss since he feels it is beyond his control, induced by fate and he has no choice but to follow Tereza. Fate, as a concept in light and weight, alludes or simplifies Nietzsche's ideas in ‘What's Up with the Title?’ in which Nietzsche alleged that people can attain eternal return and the burden of weight associated with it. Therefore, ‘es muss sein’ is highly relevant in this context since Kundera views Beethoven as a weighty person alluded by the ‘frown’ and ‘improbably mane.’ Further, he is one of the great loves of Tereza who is associated with heaviness and weight. Tomas learns about his music only through Tereza. Tomas feels that Tereza is part of fate and his ‘es muss sein’ and chooses to return to Prague to prove this. He analyses his relationship with Tereza on his way back and identifies six fortuitous events that precipitated their relationship, hence the reference to Tereza as ‘the woman born of six fortuities’ in the novel. This greatly worries him since they could be together by chance, referring to this as 'es konnte auch anders sein' rather by fate. This, is later challenged in Tomas’ thinking as illustrated by his musings on that if fate repeatedly points at a certain event, then the event must be sufficiently ‘significant and noteworthy.’ This is an implication that what happens by chance is a result of the need for necessity which is what is repeated further implying it belongs to the sphere of eternal return. This further contrasts the lightness versus weight dichotomy since he further wonders that the events that occur by chance only once also have an implication. This struggle with the concept of fortuity is further illustrated in chapter five whereby Tomas deliberates on his profession as the narrator phrases: "He had come to medicine not by coincidence or calculation but by a deep inner desire." Kundera also illustrates ‘es muss sein,’ or fate by Tomas’ womanizing habits which he feels is an imperative enslaving him. After a night of erotic dreams and stomach pains, Tomas finally declares that Tereza is the ‘es muss sein’ of his love, though he still cannot control his womanizing habits. He finally comes to the conclusion that love lives beyond ‘es muss sein.’ Therefore, the dichotomy of weight versus lightness is well illustrated since on one hand, Tereza wants Tomas to give up his philandering lifestyle and commit to her but on the other hand, Tomas feels Tereza is in the realm of lightness since she is born of fate rather than compulsion.

The literary device of symbolism, imagery and allegory can be furthered by the bowler hat. Kundera mentions that the bowler hat signifies several aspects in philosophy. First, Kundera explains that it signified violence against any woman’s dignity such as Sabina. From Kundera’s point of narration, the lingerie is depicted as enhancing the ‘charm of her femininity’ while the bowler hat, seen as hard and masculine, ‘violated and ridiculed it.’ Further, he depicts this humiliation as seen through Tomas who stood just stood beside her, fully dressed. Sexual humiliation in Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness is illustrated by both Sabina and Tereza. They harbor secret desires to be degraded by the men they have had sex with, For instance, Tereza wants the engineer to watch her go to the bathroom after sex, a desire also expressed by Sabina. With the iteration of certain words, the bowler hat can be therefore seen as a symbol of sexual degradation which contrary to the reader’s thoughts is voluntary and longed for by the women characters in the book.

Secondly, Kundera explains that the bowler hat was memento which reminded her of her father. After the death of her father, she adamantly refuses to ‘out of sovereign contempt to fight for her rights’ or to have anything else except the bowler hat. Sabina’s relationship with the father is strained and complex. She feels that the kitsch or ideas instilled by her father during her childhood should be betrayed. She refused to fight for her inheritance; hence the bowler hat in this case alludes to her betrayal and desertion of her father.

In conclusion, it is crucial to note that Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being is highly successful due to the fact that he is able to create an exchange between his ‘skeptical critical intelligence and his belief in the autonomy of his fictional characters’ (Andrews). The writer adopts a point of narration whereby he avoids all interior monologue and instead draws attention persistently to its fictiveness and the ability to display the characters imaginatively without resulting in soliloquy.        

Works Cited

Andrews, Diane. "Critical Essay on The Unbearable Lightness of Being." Novels for Students. Detroit: Literature Resource Center, 2003.

Barnard, John. "The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Repetition, Formal Structure, and Critique." Contemporary Literary Criticism Select. Detroit: Literature Resource Center, 25 January 2003.

Kundera, Milan. The unbearable lightness of being. HarperPerennial, 1984.



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