The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a 1984 novel by Czech-French writer Milan Kundera. It tells the story of Tomas, a brilliant Prague surgeon, who meets and marries the gentle, intellectual photographer Tereza. Their relationship is complicated by Tomas’s many sexual affairs with other women. Tomas considers sex and love to be distinct entities, seeing no contradiction between his marriage and his erotic exploits. However, Tereza is anguished by her husband’s infidelities and suffers from nightmares. The novel also follows Sabina, an artist and one of Tomas’s mistresses, and her lover Franz, an idealistic professor. The novel is set in 1968 during the Prague Spring and has political underpinnings.
The main theme of the novel is the uncertain existence of meaning, and the opposition of the so called lightness and heaviness. The novel opens with a philosophical discussion on the paradox of lightness versus heaviness. Kundera contrasts Nietzsche’s philosophy of eternal return, or of heaviness, with Parmenides’s understanding of life as light. If we assume that man only lives once, he can only try one path, can only make one decision and can never return to take another path or compare one choice to another—does that mean that human life is characterized by unbearable lightness or weight? Practically, accepting the lightness of being means accepting a certain lack of ultimate meaning in life, and living for momentary beauty. The opposite of this is the heaviness of being, a philosophy of life which means seeking to attach a meaning and weight to what is considered important in life.
The characters in the novel are all living either a light or a heavy life. Tomas pursues a philosophy of lightness in his erotic adventures. His mistress Sabina does likewise, living her life as an extreme example of lightness. She refuses to commit or attach to people, taking profound satisfaction in the act of betrayal and pursues freedom. Tereza and Franz, on the other hand, are both heavy characters. Tereza is heavy emotionally and cannot cope with the lightness around her, and is driven nearly to insanity. Franz, interpreting all the events of his life as heavy, is led to an early and unnecessary death.
The light lives of Tomas and Sabina are challenged in their relationship with Tereza and Franz respectively. At first Tomas views his wife as a burden whom he is obliged to take care of. But eventually he becomes uncertain of his once firm views on life and being. In the end he abandons his twin obsessions of work and womanizing and discovers true happiness with Tereza. They move to the countryside in search of a peaceful life.
Even though Sabina lives a light life, she is drawn to the intensity of heavier spirits. She falls in love with Franz, a man incapable of lightness. He creates meaning in his life by attaching weight and importance to all concepts and events. Thus, he lives for the strong emotions of love and political conviction. Unlike Tomas, Sabina never chooses the heavy way of life, but instead moves to America – the greatest symbol of freedom and lightness – after Franz dies during a political march in Cambodia. It is noteworthy that of the four, Sabina is the only one living at the end of the book; however, not even she is happy or fulfilled or sure of her life choices.
The novel explores these contradicting philosophies of life through the lives of the four main characters. Though Kundera never proclaims whether the light or the heavy life is the right one to live, it is made clear in the novel. As the title says, lightness is unbearable, as the light life is devoid of meaning; it is a life not worth living. The heavy life, however, is a life of emotional devotion, of passion and attachment. Of course, the heavy life can also be painful and filled with burdens; but suffering is part of life, and in the end the weight is worth it.
”The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?” – Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
One of the most beloved and enduringly rewarding books of the past century, The Unbearable Lightness of Being examines our ambivalent amble through life with unparalleled grace and poetic precision.