Many years earlier, Tomas had visited Sabina at her art studio in Prague, and he was drawn to the bowler hat. It was like a joke. Tomas put it on his own head and then Sabina’s. They looked in the mirror and laughed, and then realized they were both excited by the hat. It was no longer funny, and it now seemed to signify “violence; violence against Sabina, against her dignity as a woman.”
To Tomas and Sabina, the bowler hat signifies sex, and in particular, violent sex. Sabina recognizes the way that blurring gender in Tomas’s presence might demean her in his eyes.
To Tomas, the bowler hat “denied” Sabina’s femininity. It “violated and ridiculed it,” and when Tomas put the hat on Sabina’s head, he meant to ridicule her as well. However, Sabina was open to the humiliation, and she submitted to it like a “public rape.” She pulled him to the floor, and they had sex.
The bowler hat is another way for Tomas to assume power over Sabina through humiliating her. Sabina, however, is sexually excited by this humiliation and imposed inferior position, and when she puts the hat on, she willingly submits to it.
The bowler hat, the narrator says, signifies many things in Sabina’s life. It reminds Sabina of her grandfather, who originally owned it, as well as her father, whose death left the hat in her possession. The hat is also “a prop” used by Tomas during sex and a symbol of Sabina’s individuality. It is a “sentimental object” and a repeated “motif in the musical composition that [is] Sabina’s life.”
The multiple meanings of the bowler hat—a sex prop, a sentimental object, a sign of individuality—illustrate that meaning can never be fixed, as even the same object can embody several different meanings. Kundera frequently refers to the hat as a repeated “motif” in Sabina’s life, which again is an example of eternal return.
The bowler hat is exceedingly important to Sabina, which is why it is like a huge chasm separating her from Franz. When Franz saw Sabina wearing the hat, he was confused and had no idea what it meant. To him, it was “an incomprehensible gesture.” When people are young, the narrator says, the “musical composition of their lives” is still being written, but by now, Sabina and Franz’s “musical compositions are more or less complete, and every motif, every object, every word means something different to each of them.” To illustrate his point, the narrator introduces a short list of Franz and Sabina’s misunderstood words.
Kundera frequently refers to the “musical composition” of his characters’ lives, which again connects to eternal return, as music connotes repetition, recurring verses, and refrains. The “incomprehensible” nature of the hat again underscores the ambiguity of language. Franz does not understand the hat in the same context as Sabina. In this way, language and symbols are again unstable, as they are fluid and always changing in meaning.