The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

by

Milan Kundera

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Books  Symbol Icon

Books are a major part of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and they symbolize “a secret brotherhood” of knowledge and the aspiration for “something higher” within Kundera’s novel, but they also illustrate the theory of eternal return and the idea of cyclical existence. For Tereza, books are her “single weapon against the world of crudity surrounding her,” and she voraciously reads the novels in her local Czechoslovakian library as a means of escaping her “unsatisfying” life. She is first attracted to Tomas in part because he is reading a book, and when she goes home with the tall stranger in Prague, she is convinced he is a good person because of his personal library. “A man with this sort of library couldn’t possibly hurt her,” Kundera writes.

Tereza’s favorite book is Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina—she even names her dog, Karenin, after a character in the novel. Kundera notes that Anna Karenina meets her lover, Vronsky, under “curious circumstances,” and such chance happenings are key in Tereza and Tomas’s first meeting as well. Both novels follow a “symmetrical composition,” in which the beginning of the novel is reflected at the end. In Tolstoy’s novel, Anna meets Vronsky at a train station, and Anna later commits suicide at the very same station. In Kundera’s novel, Tomas and Tereza meet in the country at the beginning of novel and return to the country at the novel’s end, where they die in a tragic car accident. Kundera argues that while the “symmetrical composition” of such novels may appear cliché or “novelistic,” human existence unfolds in much the same way, even though he ultimately rejects the idea of eternal return. Kundera asserts that while human existence occurs in a linear way, human happiness is the longing for repetition and cyclical existence, and books—especially Anna Karenina, and even The Unbearable Lightness of Being itself—represent this desire.        

Books Quotes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The The Unbearable Lightness of Being quotes below all refer to the symbol of Books . For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Time, Happiness, and Eternal Return Theme Icon
). 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.
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:
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Books Symbol Timeline in The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The timeline below shows where the symbol Books appears in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1, Chapter 4
Lightness, Weight, and Dichotomies  Theme Icon
...to Prague on business. He is ecstatic, and she arrives the next day with a book—a copy of Anna Karenina—under her arm. Tomas asks where she is staying, and Tereza says... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 11
Words and Language Theme Icon
...Bernard, part German shepherd, and Tomas suggests they name the puppy Tolstoy, after Tereza’s favorite book, Anna Karenina. The puppy is a girl, Tereza says, and she suggests they name her... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 6
Sex, Love, and Duality of Body and Soul Theme Icon
Power, Politics, and Inequality Theme Icon
...and take care of her siblings, but she often escaped into the bathtub with a book. Tereza’s stepfather would come into the bathroom when she was in the tub, and Tereza’s... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 8
Sex, Love, and Duality of Body and Soul Theme Icon
Words and Language Theme Icon
Power, Politics, and Inequality Theme Icon
...met Tomas, he was a customer in the restaurant where she worked. He placed a book on the table, which caught Tereza’s eye. To Tereza, books were symbolic “of a secret... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 10
Words and Language Theme Icon
When Tomas closed his book in the restaurant of the small Czech town and motioned to his waitress, who happened... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 11
Words and Language Theme Icon
...narrator notes that such coincidences are what bring Anna and Vronsky together in Tereza’s favorite book, Anna Karenina. Anna and Vronsky meet at a train station when someone falls on the... (full context)
Time, Happiness, and Eternal Return Theme Icon
Human life, the narrator says, is like the “symmetrical composition” of the book Anna Karenina. What occurs at the beginning, occurs at the end. Life is like music,... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 14
Time, Happiness, and Eternal Return Theme Icon
Lightness, Weight, and Dichotomies  Theme Icon
Sex, Love, and Duality of Body and Soul Theme Icon
Words and Language Theme Icon
...the drunk patrons she was forced to serve in the restaurant, Tereza read as many books as she could, even more than most university students. Living in Prague, Tereza found a... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 17
Lightness, Weight, and Dichotomies  Theme Icon
Sex, Love, and Duality of Body and Soul Theme Icon
Anyone who aspires to “something higher,” like Tereza does with her obsession with books, will suffer vertigo. Vertigo, the narrator says, is more than just the fear of falling.... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 27
Sex, Love, and Duality of Body and Soul Theme Icon
...Tereza. She began to believe that their relationship had been a mistake from the start. Anna Karenina had given him the wrong idea about Tereza, and they were, in fact, incompatible. Tomas... (full context)
Part 4, Chapter 16
Sex, Love, and Duality of Body and Soul Theme Icon
Power, Politics, and Inequality Theme Icon
...simple one-room efficiency with a curtain dividing it. He has little furniture, but hundreds of books line the walls. Tereza feels instantly comfortable. This many books have to be a good... (full context)
Part 5, Chapter 1
Lightness, Weight, and Dichotomies  Theme Icon
Power, Politics, and Inequality Theme Icon
...has a strange fascination with abandoned infants, which was why he is so drawn to Oedipus. In the story of Oedipus, Oedipus is abandoned and taken in by King Polybus. As... (full context)
Part 5, Chapter 2
Power, Politics, and Inequality Theme Icon
...not they know makes little difference, and this is the connection that he makes to Oedipus. Tomas wonders how the Communists can look at what they have done and not put... (full context)
Part 5, Chapter 3
Power, Politics, and Inequality Theme Icon
...surgery calls Tomas into his office and tells Tomas that he has to retract the Oedipus article. He tells Tomas he doesn’t have to make a public statement or anything, but... (full context)
Part 5, Chapter 6
Power, Politics, and Inequality Theme Icon
...Tomas to sign and submit to the press. Not only does the letter retract the Oedipus article, but it also expresses Tomas’s love for the regime and the Soviet Union, and... (full context)
Part 5, Chapter 14
Power, Politics, and Inequality Theme Icon
The editor tells Tomas that he really enjoyed the Oedipus article, and Simon comments that some ideas are very powerful. Tomas says that because of... (full context)
Part 5, Chapter 23
Lightness, Weight, and Dichotomies  Theme Icon
Sex, Love, and Duality of Body and Soul Theme Icon
...wasn’t able to. He sits straight up in bed. According to the myth from Plato’s Symposium, people were hermaphrodites until God separated them, and now everyone wanders around looking for their... (full context)