In languages that are rooted in Latin, the narrator says, the word “compassion” is formed using the prefix “with” and the root word for “suffering.” Languages not rooted in Latin—like Czech, Polish, and German—form the word “compassion” from a word that means “feeling.” In Latin-based languages, the word compassion is synonymous with “pity.” Therefore, the narrator claims, to love out of compassion in Latin languages is inferior love.
This passage also underscores the fluidity of language. The same word has subtle, yet exceedingly important and significant, differences depending on the language in which it is spoken, and this again implies that words’ meanings can never be certain.
To love out of compassion in Czech, Polish, or German, however, is “supreme” love. Compassion from “feeling” implies that all emotions are shared, not just pity, which makes compassionate love, in Czech at least, a superior form of love. This is how Tomas feels about Tereza—he shares all her emotions, including her anger over his infidelity, and he finds it impossible to be upset with her for reading his letters.
Tomas’s love for Tereza is incredibly empathetic. He feels her physical pain as well as her emotional pain, and it soon turns him miserable and depressed. Tomas later refers to his compassionate love for Tereza as a disease that she has infected him with. To Tomas, his love for Tereza is something he can’t escape, and it even has the power to get him to return to Communist Czechoslovakia after he managed to escape.