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Literature / The Unbearable Lightness of Being

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Czech: Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí) is a 1984 novel by Milan Kundera. It takes place mainly in Prague in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia as backdrop.

Tomá, a surgeon, and Tereza, a photographer, are a pair of married Czech intellectuals living a bohemian lifestyle. Tomá is a womanizer who considers sex and love to be distinct entities: he sleeps with many women but loves only Tereza, and he sees no contradiction between these two positions. Things get even more complicated when Tomá meets Sabina, a woman craving the same intellectual bohemian life, and they cohabit with Tereza's knowledge.

The novel was adapted into a film in 1988, directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Tomá, Juliette Binoche as Tereza, and Lena Olin as Sabina.

The novel and its film adaptation contain examples of:

  • Arc Words: The German proverb "Einmal ist keinmal", roughly, "one time won't hurt", often used as an excuse for engaging in sinful pleasures, but which Kundera interprets as expressing the pessimistic sentiment that "If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all" (it literally means "once is never").
  • Adapted Out: In the novel, Tomá has a son, Simon, from an earlier relationship; he becomes important when he is the one who informs Sabina through a letter of Tomá and Tereza's death. In the film, he is nowhere to be seen, and Sabina instead receives the letter from an old patient of Tomá.
  • The Bore: Some older Communist Party members forcibly change the music in a dance club the main characters drink at to an older, patriotic song that they know and can sing along to. By doing so, they ruin the mood for everyone else. The band in question tries to jazz up the songs so they're still danceworthy, but this draws the party member's ire.
  • Big Brother Is Watching: Upon Tereza and Tomá's return to Prague, they find themselves unable to resume their old lives due to their paranoia that party members could be watching them, known subversives, at any time.
  • Call to Agriculture: Late in the story, Tomá and Tereza abandon their lives in Prague to work on a farm, undernearth Pavel, one of Tomá's former patients. It is portrayed as one of the most genuinely happy and simple periods of their lives.
  • Death by Newbery Medal: Tomá and Tereza's dog, Karenin, who they got on the day they got married, gets cancer and has to be euthanized by the time they have moved to Pavel's farm, only shortly before they themselves die
  • Dirty Commies: The main characters think very little of Socialism or the USSR. A plurality of Tomá's troubles stem from a negative opinion piece he gets published on the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Further strife in the character's life is induced when they are forced to flee their homes during the Warsaw Pact invasion, and the photographs Tereza takes of the protests make them both political targets and gets used to identify targets. When they return to Czechoslovakia, their passports get taken and Tomá loses his job as a doctor due to his refusal to apologize for his opinion piece, and is reduced to a window washer.
  • Eye Scream: Discussed. Tomá discuses the story of Oedipus, the king who, after seeing the effects his actions had on his kingdom, plucked his own eyes out and abandoned the throne, to show how Oedipus felt responsibility for the consequences of his actions in a way socialist leaders did not when the atrocities of the Stalinist regime came to light, and makes this the basis for an opinion piece he gets published in a Prague newspaper. Later, a party member brings this up again, and notes particularly the irony of a doctor asking people to blind themselves.
  • Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job: Tomá is reduced to washing windows when they return to Prague. And while it isn't really, in Switzerland Tereza treats her magazine photography job as this, due to the public losing interest in the events happening in Czechoslovakia in favor of lighter pieces.
  • Friends with Benefits: A major conflict in the story is the lightness with which Tomá treats sexual relationships. While Tereza accepts that Tomá doesn't love the many other women he has sex with, she doesn't understand how he can do so without feeling any feelings about it at all.
  • Futureshadowing: The penultimate scene of the film adaptation has Sabina on a beach in California reading a letter that tells her of Tomá and Tereza's death in a traffic accident. The final scene has Tomá and Tereza driving off back in Czechoslovakia, where in the last line he tells her he's thinking about how happy he is.
  • Just a Stupid Accent: Daniel Day-Lewis in the film adaptation is an Englishman portraying a Czech lothario by putting on an accent that is a mixture of TV-presenter British and Cold-War-spy-movie Russian. The effect is less than suave, more like distractingly ridiculous.
  • Nothing Exciting Ever Happens Here: The first scene of the movie features Sabina complaining about her job and her town, saying that nobody reads or talks about anything interesting, and chasing after Tomá to Prague for that very reason.
  • Posthumous Character: Midway through the novel, we learn that Tomá and Tereza have died in a road accident. Yet, due to the novel's non-linear narrative, we continue to follow their storyline up to the end of the novel. In the film, since the plot is arranged more linearly, it had to save that reveal for the penultimate scene.

Alternative Title(s): The Unbearable Lightness Of Being