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
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.
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.