The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

by

Milan Kundera

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being Quotes

Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Harper Perennial edition of The Unbearable Lightness of Being published in 2009.
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Part 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.

Related Characters: Franz, Franz’s Girlfriend
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.

Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.

Related Characters: Tomas, Sabina
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, “sketch” is not quite the word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.

Einmal ist keinmal, says Tomas to himself. What happens but once, says the German adage, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all.

Related Characters: Tomas (speaker)
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 1, Chapter 6 Quotes

Tomas came to this conclusion: Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman).

Related Characters: Tomas, Tereza
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2, Chapter 8 Quotes

Something else raised him above the others as well: he had an open book on his table. No one had ever opened a book in that restaurant before. In Tereza’s eyes, books were the emblems of a secret brotherhood. For she had but a single weapon against the world of crudity surrounding her: the books she took out of the municipal library, and above all, the novels. She had read any number of them, from Fielding to Thomas Mann. They not only offered the possibility of an imaginary escape from a life she found unsatisfying; they also had a meaning for her as physical objects: she loved to walk down the street with a book under her arm. It had the same significance for her as an elegant cane for the dandy a century ago. It differentiated her from others.

Related Characters: Tomas, Tereza
Related Symbols: Books
Page Number: 47-8
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2, Chapter 11 Quotes

Early in the novel that Tereza clutched under her arm when she went to visit Tomas, Anna meets Vronsky in curious circumstances: they are at the railway station when someone is run over by a train. At the end of the novel, Anna throws herself under a train. This symmetrical composition—the same motif appears at the beginning and at the end—may seem quite “novelistic” to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on condition that you refrain from reading such notions as “fictive,” “fabricated,” and “untrue to life” into the word “novelistic.” Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion.

Related Characters: Tomas, Tereza
Related Symbols: Books
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2, Chapter 15 Quotes

Let me return to this dream. Its horror did not begin with Tomas’s first pistol shot; it was horrifying from the outset. Marching naked in formation with a group of naked women was for Tereza the quintessential image of horror. When she lived at home, her mother forbade her to lock the bathroom door. What she meant by her injunction was: Your body is just like all other bodies; you have no right to shame; you have no reason to hide something that exists in millions of identical copies. In her mother’s world all bodies were the same and marched behind one another in formation. Since childhood, Tereza had seen nudity as a sign of concentration camp uniformity, a sign of humiliation.

Related Characters: Tomas, Tereza, Tereza’s Mother
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2, Chapter 20 Quotes

“Here is a painting I happened to drip red paint on. At first I was terribly upset, but then I started enjoying it. The trickle looked like a crack; it turned the building site into a battered old backdrop, a backdrop with a building site painted on it. I began playing with the crack, filling it out, wondering what might be visible behind it. And that’s how I began my first cycle of paintings. I called it “Behind the Scenes.” Of course, I couldn’t show them to anybody. I’d have been kicked out of the Academy. On the surface, there was always an impeccably realistic world, but underneath, behind the backdrop’s cracked canvas, lurked something different, something mysterious or abstract.”

Related Characters: Sabina (speaker), Tomas, Tereza
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2, Chapter 26 Quotes

Thinking in Zurich of those days, she no longer felt any aversion to the man. The word “weak” no longer sounded like a verdict. Any man confronted with superior strength is weak, even if he has an athletic body like Dubcek’s. The very weakness that at the time had seemed unbearable and repulsive, the weakness that had driven Tereza and Tomas from the country, suddenly attracted her. She realized that she belonged among the weak, in the camp of the weak, in the country of the weak, and that she had to be faithful to them precisely because they were weak and gasped for breath in the middle of sentences.

Related Characters: Tereza, Alexander Dubcek
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3, Chapter 2 Quotes

The bowler hat was a motif in the musical composition that was Sabina's life. It returned again and again, each time with a different meaning, and all the meanings flowed through the bowler hat like water through a riverbed. I might call it Heraclitus’ (“You can’t step twice into the same river”) riverbed; the bowler hat was a bed through which each time Sabina saw another river flow, another semantic river: each time the same object would give rise to a new meaning, though all former meanings would resonate (like an echo, like a parade of echoes) together with the new one. Each new experience would resound, each time enriching the harmony. The reason why Tomas and Sabina were touched by the sight of the bowler hat in a Zurich hotel and made love almost in tears was that its black presence was not merely a reminder of their love games but also a memento of Sabina’s father and of her grandfather, who lived in a century without airplanes and cars.

Related Characters: Tomas, Sabina, Franz
Page Number: 88
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 5, Chapter 21 Quotes

The pain grew more intense. He could not speak. It occurred to him that his womanizing was also something of an “Es muss sein!”—an imperative enslaving him. He longed for a holiday. But for an absolute holiday, a rest from all imperatives, from all “Es muss sein!" If he could take a rest (a permanent rest) from the hospital operating table, then why not from the world operating table, the one where his imaginary scalpel opened the strongbox women use to hide their illusory one-millionth part dissimilarity?

Related Characters: Tomas, Tereza
Page Number: 234
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 5, Chapter 22 Quotes

He thought: In the clockwork of the head, two cogwheels turn opposite each other. On the one, images; on the other, the body’s reactions. The cog carrying the image of a naked woman meshes with the corresponding erection-command cog. But when, for one reason or another, the wheels go out of phase and the excitement cog meshes with a cog bearing the image of a swallow in flight, the penis rises at the sight of a swallow.

Moreover, a study by one of Tomas’s colleagues, a specialist in human sleep, claimed that during any kind of dream men have erections, which means that the link between erections and naked women is only one of a thousand ways the Creator can set the clockwork moving in a man’s head.

And what has love in common with all this? Nothing. If a cogwheel in Tomas’s head goes out of phase and he is excited by seeing a swallow, it has absolutely no effect on his love for Tereza.

Related Characters: Tomas, Tereza
Page Number: 236
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 6, Chapter 2 Quotes

Rejection and privilege, happiness and woe—no one felt more concretely than Yakov how interchangeable opposites are, how short the step from one pole of human existence to the other.

Then, at the very outset of the war, he fell prisoner to the Germans, and other prisoners, belonging to an incomprehensible, standoffish nation that had always been intrinsically repulsive to him, accused him of being dirty. Was he, who bore on his shoulders a drama of the highest order (as fallen angel and Son of God), to undergo judgment not for something sublime (in the realm of God and the angels) but for shit? Were the very highest of drama and the very lowest so vertiginously close?

Vertiginously close? Can proximity cause vertigo?

It can. When the north pole comes so close as to touch the south pole, the earth disappears and man finds himself in a void that makes his head spin and beckons him to fall.

If rejection and privilege are one and the same, if there is no difference between the sublime and the paltry, if the Son of God can undergo judgment for shit, then human existence loses its dimensions and becomes unbearably light.

Related Characters: Yakov Dzhugashvili
Page Number: 244
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 6, Chapter 5 Quotes

“Kitsch” is a German word born in the middle of the sentimental nineteenth century, and from German it entered all Western languages. Repeated use, however, has obliterated its original metaphysical meaning: kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.

Page Number: 248
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 6, Chapter 12 Quotes

All her life she had proclaimed kitsch her enemy. But hadn’t she in fact been carrying it with her? Her kitsch was her image of home, all peace, quiet, and harmony, and ruled by a loving mother and wise father. It was an image that took shape within her after the death of her parents. The less her life resembled that sweetest of dreams, the more sensitive she was to its magic, and more than once she shed tears when the ungrateful daughter in a sentimental film embraced the neglected father as the windows of the happy family’s house shone out into the dying day.

Related Characters: Sabina
Page Number: 255
Explanation and Analysis:

Though touched by the song, Sabina did not take her feeling seriously. She knew only too well that the song was a beautiful lie. As soon as kitsch is recognized for the lie it is, it moves into the context of non-kitsch, thus losing its authoritarian power and becoming as touching as any other human weakness. For none among us is superman enough to escape kitsch completely. No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.

Related Characters: Sabina
Page Number: 256
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 6, Chapter 13 Quotes

The fantasy of the Grand March that Franz was so intoxicated by is the political kitsch joining leftists of all times and tendencies. The Grand March is the splendid march on the road to brotherhood, equality, justice, happiness; it goes on and on, obstacles notwithstanding, for obstacles there must be if the march is to be the Grand March.

The dictatorship of the proletariat or democracy? Rejection of the consumer society or demands for increased productivity? The guillotine or an end to the death penalty? It is all beside the point. What makes a leftist a leftist is not this or that theory but his ability to integrate any theory into the kitsch called the Grand March.

Related Characters: Franz
Page Number: 257
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 6, Chapter 29 Quotes

What remains of the dying population of Cambodia?

One large photograph of an American actress holding an Asian child in her arms.

What remains of Tomas?

An inscription reading HE WANTED THE KINGDOM OF GOD ON EARTH

What remains of Beethoven?

A frown, an improbably man, and a somber voice intoning “Es muss sein!

What remains of Franz?

An inscription reading A RETURN AFTER LONG WANDERINGS.

And so on and so forth. Before we are forgotten, we will be turned into kitsch. Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion.

Page Number: 277-8
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 7, Chapter 4 Quotes

But most of all: No one can give anyone else the gift of the idyll; only an animal can do so, because only animals were not expelled from Paradise. The love between dog and man is idyllic. It knows no conflicts, no hair-raising scenes; it knows no development. Karenin surrounded Tereza and Tomas with a life based on repetition, and he expected the same from them.

Related Characters: Tomas, Tereza, Karenin
Page Number: 298
Explanation and Analysis:

If Karenin had been a person instead of a dog, he would surely have long since said to Tereza, “Look, I’m sick and tired of carrying that roll in my mouth every day. Can’t you come up with something different?’’ And therein lies the whole of man’s plight. Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition

Related Characters: Tomas, Tereza, Karenin
Page Number: 298
Explanation and Analysis:
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