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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.

Tomáš, a surgeon, and Tereza, a photographer, are a marriage of Czech intellectuals that live a bohemian lifestyle. Tomáš is a womanizer who considers sex and love to be distinct entities: he has sex with many women but loves only Tereza, and he sees no contradiction between these two positions. Things get even more complicated when Tomáš meets Sabina, a woman craving for that intellectual bohemian lifestyle, 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 Tomáš, 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, Tomáš has a son, Simon, from an earlier relationship; he becomes important when he is the one who informs Sabina through a letter of Tomáš and Tereza's death. In the film, he is nowhere to be seen, and Sabina instead receives the letter from an old patient of Tomáš.
  • Futureshadowing: The penultimate scene of the film adaptation has Sabina on a beach in California reading a letter that tells her of Tomáš and Tereza's death in a traffic accident. The final scene has Tomáš and Tereza driving off back in Czechoslovakia, where in the last line he tells her he's thinking about how happy he is.
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  • 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.
  • Posthumous Character: Midway through the novel, we learn that Tomáš 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