The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being


Milan Kundera

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Milan Kundera

Kundera was born to middle-class parents, Milada Kunderová and Ludvik Kundera, in Brno, a large city in Czechoslovakia, known today as Czechia. Kundera’s father was a noted Czech pianist and musicologist, and he taught Kundera piano and musical composition, an influence that is reflected throughout much of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. As a teenager, Kundera began to write poetry, and it was during this time that he officially joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. He graduated from high school in 1948 and moved to Prague, where he studied literature and aesthetics at Charles University. One year later, Kundera transferred to the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague to study film. Despite being pro-communist, Kundera was also an outspoken supporter of communist reform, and he was expelled from the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in 1950 for his political views. He graduated from the Academy of Performing Arts in 1952, where he stayed on as a lecturer of literature. Kundera was readmitted to the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in 1956, but his desire for reform continued, and after participating in the protests of the Prague Spring in 1968—an event that is also mentioned in The Unbearable Lightness of Being—he was again expelled from the party and dismissed from his job. He immigrated to France in 1975, and after his Czech citizenship was stripped in 1979, Kundera officially became a French citizen in 1981. Since moving to France, Kundera has lived a quiet and guarded life in Paris. He is a highly respected writer and has written numerous novels, poems, and essays, including Life is Elsewhere, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and The Festival of Insignificance. Kundera has won several prizes and awards, such as the 1987 Austrian State Prize for European Literature; the 2000 Herder Prize, an international prize awarded to European writers; and the 2011 Ovid prize, an honor awarded annually to one writer from any country.    
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Historical Context of The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being takes place before, during, and after the Prague Spring, a period of mass protest against Czechoslovakia as a Communist state after World War II. The Prague Spring officially began on January 5, 1968 with the election of Alexander Dubcek as the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Dubcek, whom Kundera mentions several times in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, was a reformist, and under his leadership, previous media censorship was lifted, and the Czech people were allowed increased freedoms and liberties they had not enjoyed since Czechoslovakia’s move to Communism decades earlier. Dubcek’s reform gained the negative attention of the Soviet Union, who worried that Czechoslovakia was becoming too westernized. The Prague Spring lasted until August 21, 1968, at which time the Soviet Union sent 650,000 armed troops and tanks to occupy Czechoslovakia. The Russian occupation, meant to last only a few days, went on for nearly eight months. The resistance to the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia was entirely civilian-based and there was never a formal military engagement. While there was never official engagement with the Soviet Union, it is estimated that roughly 82 Czechoslovakian civilians were killed during the resistance to the Russian occupation. While the Soviet Union had pulled out of Czechoslovakia by the spring of 1969, the occupation sparked mass emigration with some 300,000 Czechs leaving their nation by the end of the conflict. The Soviet Union remained in control of Czechoslovakia until 1989, at which time the communist regime was ended, and the country officially became the Czech Republic.    

Other Books Related to The Unbearable Lightness of Being

As a piece of postmodern literature, The Unbearable Lightness of Being explores the problems inherent to language and meaning. According to postmodern theory, words and language are constantly changing and evolving; thus, fixed and universal meaning is impossible. Other works of postmodern literature that interrogate the arbitrary and unstable nature of language and meaning include Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. Postmodern literature is also known for its rejection of traditional philosophy and metaphysics, which is seen in Kundera’s rejection of the philosophical concept of eternal return in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. This metaphysical questioning is also seen in Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka’s The Trial, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Kundera’s novel is highly intertextual, which means it references other books and writers—another hallmark of postmodernism. Kundera makes multiple references to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as to Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, a book that plays a significant role in the novel. He also mentions Stendhal, a 19th-century French writer best known for the 1830 novel The Red and the Black.    
Key Facts about The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  • Full Title: The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  • When Written: 1984
  • Where Written: Paris, France
  • When Published: 1984
  • Literary Period: Postmodern
  • Genre: Novel; Philosophical Fiction 
  • Setting: Czechoslovakia—before, during, and after the Prague Spring of 1968—as well as Switzerland, France, and Cambodia. 
  • Climax: When Tomas leaves Zurich and follows Tereza back to Czechoslovakia.
  • Antagonist: The Soviet Union and the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia, Czechoslovakia’s oppressive communist government, and the duality of body and soul.
  • Point of View: Third Person Omniscient; First Person Omniscient

Extra Credit for The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Out of This World. In 1983, an asteroid that was discovered by the Klet’ Observatory in the Czech Republic was named 7390 Kundera after Milan Kundera. 

Fly on the Wall. In 2008, Kundera was accused of informing on a fellow Czech to the secret police in the 1950s, which prompted the young man’s long-term imprisonment in a labor camp. Kundera vehemently denied any involvement in the young Czech’s arrest or acting as a police informant, and he was publically supported by fellow writers Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez.