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The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Summary


Here you will find a The Unbearable Lightness of Being summary (Milan Kundera's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

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Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Summary Overview

The narrative commences with a philosophical exploration contrasting 'lightness' and 'heaviness'. Drawing from Nietzsche's concept of eternal recurrence versus Parmenides's perception of life as being light, the author ponders whether life can bear any meaning or significance without the prospects of comparison. The protagonist, Tomas, is a renowned Prague surgeon who embodies this concept of lightness in his adventurous love exploits. Despite his past marriage and a son, Tomas finds comfort in his perpetual bachelorhood until he meets Tereza, a waitress. Their meeting sparks a romantic interest in Tomas, one he initially resists but eventually succumbs to. Tereza, hitherto leading an unfulfilling life, finds an intellectual and dreamer in Tomas and falls for him instantly. Despite their cohabitation, Tomas fails to let go of his extramarital affairs, causing Tereza emotional distress and increasing suicidal thoughts. To appease her, Tomas marries Tereza but retains his mistresses, including his long-term lover, Sabina, a talented painter. Interestingly, Tereza forms a friendship with Sabina, who finds Tereza a job as a photographer in Prague. However, the Soviet military occupation of the city following the Prague Spring causes Sabina to flee first, then Tomas and Tereza, to Switzerland. In Zurich, Tereza finds herself unemployed and irritated by Tomas's unceasing affairs. Consequentially, she decides to return to Prague, followed by Tomas, a move that implicates their freedom. Following his refusal to denounce his anti-Communist article, Tomas is stripped of his position as a surgeon. His son tries to persuade him to join the dissidents, but Tomas rejects the idea. Tereza, now a bartender, succumbs to an affair in desperation to understand Tomas's lifestyle, which only yields more misery. Eventually, they move to the country and live peacefully until they die in a car accident. In Geneva, Sabina is involved with Franz, a professor whose ideology is more aligned with Tereza's. When Franz decides to leave his wife for Sabina, she abandons him and moves to Paris, then America, where she learns of Tomas and Tereza's death. Franz finds solace in a student who adores him but never truly comprehends Sabina's betrayal. Upon his death, his wife claims his body and inscribes "A return after long wanderings" on his tombstone.

part 1

The book's central dilemma, the contrast between lightness and weight, is introduced upfront. The author explores the implications of man having only one path in life - does it mean life is incredibly light and therefore meaningless? Or does meaning derive from weight? The narrative then shifts to Tomas, a Prague-based surgeon. After spending time with waitress Tereza in a village cafe, Tomas becomes smitten. When Tereza visits him in Prague and falls ill, Tomas cares for her before sending her home, questioning his actions as he felt a spark of love. When they reunite in Prague, Tomas realizes Tereza fabricated a business trip as an excuse to see him. Tereza demands emotional intimacy that Tomas had deliberately avoided since his divorce. He had led a carefree, womanizing lifestyle, ensuring his love affairs never progressed beyond superficial overnight stays. Tereza, however, breaks his rules by spending nights with him and bringing her life packed into a suitcase. Tereza's presence makes Tomas rethink his love life. While he continues his other affairs, he feels a unique tenderness towards Tereza, likening her to a found child. The narrator interjects, cautioning Tomas about the dangers of metaphors and how they can lead to love. Tomas' philandering causes Tereza distress, leading her to attempt suicide out of jealousy and despair, which Tomas prevents. Even Tomas feels a twinge of jealousy when Tereza dances with a male friend. Tereza's nightmares mirror her insecurities and fears about Tomas' unfaithfulness. Tomas finds Tereza burdensome, but his empathy binds him to her. His relationships with other women are no longer as enjoyable. To reassure Tereza, he marries her and buys her a dog named Karenin. Alongside his chaotic love life, Tomas faces political instability due to the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague. His anti-communist writings attract negative attention, prompting a Swiss doctor to offer him a job in Zurich. However, Tomas declines for Tereza's sake. Tereza thrives amidst the upheaval, working as a photojournalist and aiding foreign journalists. Eventually, they flee to Zurich, but Tomas continues his affairs. When Tereza returns to Prague due to her guilt, Tomas decides to follow her despite knowing he may regret it. He feels their union is a product of mere chance and accident.

part 2

The second section of The Unbearable Lightness of Being delves into the life of Tereza, from her viewpoint. We find her initially at Tomas's apartment, feeling embarrassed due to her growling stomach. She believes the soul and body to be separate, with a strong dislike towards the latter. Tereza physically resembles her mother who was once a beautiful woman. Early pregnancy led her mother into an early marriage which eventually broke down. The woman abandoned her husband and Tereza, opting to live with a miscreant. Following her father's political issues, Tereza was sent to live with her mother and stepfather. Tereza's mother, whose beauty had faded over time, channelled her frustration onto Tereza. Tereza's mother enjoyed making her daughter, who was shy and sad, feel uncomfortable. Forced to leave high school, Tereza took on the role of caregiver for her mother and half-siblings. Her mother, bitter about her lost beauty, would walk around the house naked, speak openly about her intimate life, and refused to let Tereza lock the bathroom door. Tereza sought solace in books and the idea of a unique soul. The sound of a string quartet from Prague playing Beethoven also comforted her. Tereza develops feelings for Tomas, as she associates him with a desired lifestyle: she sees a book on his table, hears strains of Beethoven on his radio, and knows he is from Prague. Tomas's hotel room and her parents' house in Prague both have the same number - six. She believes these coincidences signify that they are destined to be together. The next time Tereza visits Tomas, she comes with a heavy suitcase and the novel Anna Karenina, hoping to enter Tomas’s life. When they make love, she screams, trying to make the act about the soul and not the despised body. In Prague, Tereza's intelligence aids her in learning photography. With Sabina's assistance, she transitions from a darkroom helper to a staff photographer. Tereza and Sabina go out to celebrate her success, and Tereza enjoys Tomas’s jealousy when she dances with another man. However, Tomas doesn’t completely free Tereza from her past. She can't escape her disgust for indistinguishable bodies; Tomas doesn’t see her body as different from other women's. Tired of Tomas's affairs, Tereza befriends Sabina and tries to share other women's bodies with Tomas. During the Soviet invasion, Tereza finds purpose in her photography by documenting the invasion. When she and Tomas move to Geneva, she offers her photos to a magazine. Despite the editor and another photographer reassuring her that there is nothing ugly about the body, Tereza remains horrified by the "honest" representation of naked bodies. In Geneva, Tereza is unhappy and misses her homeland. She identifies with the weak and humiliated politician Dubcek, and wishes Tomas was as weak as her. After receiving a call from another woman for Tomas, Tereza decides to return to Prague. Back in Prague, she contemplates moving back to her hometown or having an affair to hurt Tomas. Tomas follows her to Prague after five days, making her realize she was subconsciously hoping he would come after her.

part 3

Sabina reconnects with her lover, Franz, a handsome and guilt-ridden married professor. He proposes a trip to Palermo that she initially dismisses. After sharing wine and exposing herself to him, she dons a bowler hat, initiating an intimate encounter which spurs her agreement to travel to Palermo. In solitude afterward, Sabina reminisces on how the bowler hat became part of her erotic experiences with Tomas in Prague. She reflects that while it degraded her, it was a humiliation she sought and relished. The hat, once her grandfather's, was the only inheritance she claimed after her parents' death. It came to represent her affair with Tomas and their time in Prague, but also symbolizes Franz's misinterpretation of Sabina. The author notes that Franz and Sabina, like other late-in-life lovers, have a catalogue of mutually misconstrued words. These include how they view womanhood, betrayal, music, light and darkness, parades, New York, Czechoslovakia, cemeteries, historical buildings, strength, and truth. Their differing perspectives of these words highlight their contrasting personalities and beliefs. Franz's wife Marie-Claude throws a dinner party, offending Franz with her brash hosting. Unbeknown to her husband's affair, she attempts to belittle Sabina, criticizing her pendant. Inspired by a simple Amsterdam church, Franz chooses to unburden his life. He confesses his infidelity to Marie-Claude and leaves to join Sabina. Sabina grapples with her habit of betrayal, growing increasingly disdainful of Franz. After an intimate night, she decides to leave him. He discovers her departure, unable to comprehend her decision. He moves into a small apartment, finds solace in imagining Sabina beside him, and begins a new relationship with a student. Sabina relocates to Paris, contemplating her next move and the potential consequences of her betrayals. When she learns of Tomas and Tereza's deaths, she is overwhelmed by thoughts of death, especially the horrifying image of being trapped underground by a heavy stone.

part 4

In this part, Tomas and Tereza are settling into life in Prague, which is filled with personal struggles and political unrest. Tomas spends his time listening to a police radio show, where they broadcast secretly recorded conversations of dissidents. Tereza insists on having breakfast with Tomas every day, even though he prefers to eat alone, as their schedules don’t match during the day. Tereza's discomfort with her body continues. During a trip to the sauna, she observes the young women of Prague and remembers them taunting Russian soldiers during the initial days of the invasion. She is particularly struck by one woman with an attractive face but a body she finds off-putting. She struggles to understand the link between the soul and the body, wishing she could be as carefree as Tomas. Tereza works in a hotel bar since she can't take pictures anymore. She overhears a former ambassador conversing with a man whose son is a dissident. This makes her realize that her photographs from the invasion were exploited by the Russian police. Trying to overcome her bodily insecurities, Tereza flirts with male patrons at the bar, but it's always intense and heavy. After being wrongfully accused of serving alcohol to a minor, an engineer defends her, who she later flirts with a few days later. In a dream sequence, Tereza goes to Petrin Hill at Tomas' advice where a man assists three people in committing suicide. However, when it's her turn, she refuses and understands that Tomas wanted her dead. This dream prompts her to visit the engineer. Their interaction is awkward and riddled with pauses. Tereza mistakes a copy of Sophocles' Oedipus in the engineer's room as a sign from Tomas. They have sex, after which she's filled with shame and leaves in a hurry. On her way home, Tereza finds a crow that she'd earlier seen kids trying to bury alive. She attempts to nurse it back to life but fails. She revisits the sauna where she reminisces about her affair with the engineer, which was her first truly observed sexual encounter. She considers herself in love with him but never sees him again. A regular customer at the bar accuses her of being a prostitute and implies that she's being watched. This, along with a conversation with the ambassador, convinces her that the engineer works for the secret police and she was set up. Tereza and Tomas drive around Prague, which has transformed drastically with Russian influences. In another dream, Tereza sees park benches floating in the river, symbolizing the city bidding her goodbye, and she contemplates suicide.

part 5

Part 5 re-engages with Tomas post-Zurich, back in Prague. His chief surgeon boss demands he retracts a politically provocative 1968 article, in which Tomas likened the Czech communists to Oedipus. He criticized the Communists for using ignorance as an excuse for their actions, contrary to Oedipus who accepted responsibility. The hospital staff seemingly want Tomas to sign this retraction, but he staunchly refuses, losing his job in the process. Soon after, he finds work as a general practitioner in a clinic. A Ministry of Interior representative approaches Tomas, requesting he sign a statement declaring he was manipulated by the editors who published his contentious article. Sensing the potential for his signature to be forged and used against him, Tomas opts for anonymity, leaving medicine to become a window-washer. Previously, surgery was Tomas's passion - his "Ess muss sein!", a phrase borrowed from Beethoven meaning "It must be!". Now, his life is simpler, lighter, and less vulnerable to hurt. He resumes his womanizing ways, taking pleasure in appreciating each woman as a unique individual. An intriguing young woman who doesn't conform to his expectations catches his attention. Further on, a former lover recounts a romantic encounter during a storm that Tomas cannot remember, making him realize that his romantic memories are solely filled with Tereza. With other women, he's a doctor or explorer. Two dissidents, an editor and Tomas's son, attempt to get Tomas to sign a petition against the maltreatment of political prisoners. Despite the allure of being a significant dissident and the potential to strengthen his bond with his son, Tomas refuses, fearing it could endanger Tereza. News about the petition is publicised, leaving Tomas pondering whether he should've signed it. As he contemplates the Czech history and his aging self, Tereza suggests they move to the countryside, a proposal that would mean an end to Tomas's womanizing. In an ideal world, Tomas muses, he would be stimulated by a bird rather than a woman, to avoid upsetting Tereza. However, in reality, he acknowledges that he would relinquish any joy for Tereza.

part 6

The story recounts Stalin's son, Yakov's demise. Yakov committed suicide in a German camp following a dispute with British prisoners about his unsanitary latrine habits. His inability to bear humiliation and judgement over something as trivial as defecation, led him to death by an electrified fence. His death prompts Kundera to raise questions about the relationship between defecation, a shameful act, and eroticism, and if God and Adam participated in it. According to Kundera, most European ideologies, both religious and political, affirm the goodness of the world and human existence, a concept he refers to as "categorical agreement with being." However, these same ideologies exclude defecation from their aesthetic ideal, replaced by kitsch, which signifies "the absolute denial of shit." This kitsch is Sabina's lifelong adversary. She recognizes its presence in the sentimentality of a Senator's interaction with children in America. She disagrees with the common notion that Communist reality is worse than the Communist ideal, implying that in a world dominated by kitsch, her emotional survival would be impossible. In order to elude kitsch, Sabina conceals her Czech origin to avoid being stereotyped as a romantic, persecuted artist. She now lives with an elderly couple to assuage her guilt for deserting her family and understands that even her life isn't devoid of kitsch. Franz resides happily in Geneva with his mistress. A friend's invitation to join the Grand March on Cambodia leaves him torn between his love for his mistress and his conviction that Sabina would have approved of his participation. The March, however, turns into a disaster with the French and Americans vying for leadership, celebrities capitalizing on the event for publicity, and an accidental death. This event leaves even kitsch-loving Franz shaken. In the latter part, Kundera identifies four types of men, categorized by their need to be seen. Franz fits into the fourth group – dreamers who live to be seen and admired by an imaginary entity. In Franz's case, this person is Sabina. Simon, Tomas's son, moves to the countryside and embraces Catholicism. He begins penning letters to his father who reciprocates eventually. However, shortly after their amicable meeting, Tomas and Tereza die in a car crash. Simon then starts corresponding with Sabina to maintain his connection with Tomas. Sabina, now living in California, drafts a will ensuring her death reflects the lightness with which she lived. Meanwhile, in Cambodia, Franz is attacked by a group of men. He attempts to fight back, thinking of Sabina's admiration for his strength, but ends up getting severely injured. His wife, Marie-Claude, is the last person he sees before passing away. Marie-Claude then arranges an extravagant funeral, while Simon decides to inscribe "He wanted the kingdom of God on earth" on Tomas's gravestone.

part 7

The story draws to a close with Tomas and Tereza leading a tranquil life in the countryside, free from the political troubles of the city. Tereza feels a sense of fulfillment as Tomas is now entirely hers. However, their peace is disrupted when their dog, Karenin, suffers from a cancerous wound. Devastated, Tereza contemplates about her affinity towards animals over humans and reflects on the cruelty they've endured, stating, "True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only ...towards those who are at its mercy: animals." Tereza's affection for Karenin seemingly surpasses her love for Tomas. Addressing this, Kundera suggests that animals, unlike humans, never departed from the proverbial Eden. After sharing some last moments with Karenin, they euthanize him, believing him to be smiling at the end. They bury their beloved pet. Tereza dreams of Tomas being executed and turned into a rabbit which is handed over to her. She finds herself in Prague, holding onto the rabbit, symbolizing her eternal possession of Tomas. In reality, Tomas discloses to Tereza about his correspondence with his son. Observing Tomas, Tereza acknowledges his aging and feels a pang of guilt for steering him away from his prosperous life in Prague to prove his love for her. She perceives Tomas as weak and old, resembling the rabbit from her dream. After Tomas helps a man by setting his dislocated arm, they all enjoy a night of dancing. Upon returning, Tereza admits her guilt to Tomas, who reassures her of his happiness. Their room mirrors the bedroom Tereza visualized as a child.

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