The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

by

Milan Kundera

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Sabina’s Black Bowler Hat Symbol Analysis

Sabina’s Black Bowler Hat  Symbol Icon

Sabina’s black bowler hat appears several times in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and it symbolizes several different things in Kundera’s novel, giving it a fluid quality that embodies the idea of eternal return which Kundera explores in the novel. The hat originally belonged to Sabina’s grandfather and was left to Sabina after her father’s death. It thus is a “sentimental object” and comes to be symbol of Sabina’s individuality—the masculine nature of the hat is at odds with her obvious femininity—and it is used by Tomas as a sexual “prop.” When Sabina wears the hat during sex with Tomas, it signifies “violence; violence against Sabina, against her dignity as a woman.” Sabina and Tomas’s relationship is one based on an unequal distribution of power in which Tomas has the upper hand, and when Sabina dons the bowler hat, she willingly submits to this inferior status in a sexual manner.

The bowler hat is also a repeated “motif in the musical composition that [is] Sabina’s life,” and it means different things during different times in her existence. The recurring appearance of the hat closely resembles the idea of eternal return within the novel, and the hat’s shifting meaning underscores Kundera’s overreaching argument of the arbitrary nature of words and language. Sabina’s bowler hat does not have one fixed, universal meaning; rather, what the hat signifies changes from time to time and person to person. For instance, while the hat symbolizes sexual power and eroticism to Tomas, when Sabina puts the hat on in front of Franz, he is confused by its meaning. To Franz, the bowler hat is “an incomprehensible gesture,” which suggests that fixed and singular meaning of any symbol or word is impossible.     

Sabina’s Black Bowler Hat Quotes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The The Unbearable Lightness of Being quotes below all refer to the symbol of Sabina’s Black Bowler Hat . 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 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:
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Sabina’s Black Bowler Hat Symbol Timeline in The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The timeline below shows where the symbol Sabina’s Black Bowler Hat appears in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1, Chapter 13
Sex, Love, and Duality of Body and Soul Theme Icon
Power, Politics, and Inequality Theme Icon
...Tomas goes to Sabina’s hotel, and she opens the door wearing only lingerie and a black bowler hat . Tomas closes the door and takes the hat off Sabina’s head, and they immediately... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 21
Sex, Love, and Duality of Body and Soul Theme Icon
Words and Language Theme Icon
At Sabina’s studio, Tereza noticed a black bowler hat on a stand. Sabina said it had been her grandfather’s, and Tereza offered to take... (full context)
Part 3, Chapter 1
Lightness, Weight, and Dichotomies  Theme Icon
Sex, Love, and Duality of Body and Soul Theme Icon
Words and Language Theme Icon
Sabina steps out of her skirt and puts a black bowler hat on her head. Franz thinks Sabina looks odd in the masculine hat, and it makes... (full context)
Part 3, Chapter 2
Sex, Love, and Duality of Body and Soul Theme Icon
Words and Language Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Sex, Love, and Duality of Body and Soul Theme Icon
Power, Politics, and Inequality Theme Icon
To Tomas, the bowler hat “denied” Sabina’s femininity. It “violated and ridiculed it,” and when Tomas put the hat on... (full context)
Time, Happiness, and Eternal Return Theme Icon
Sex, Love, and Duality of Body and Soul Theme Icon
Words and Language Theme Icon
Power, Politics, and Inequality Theme Icon
The bowler hat , the narrator says, signifies many things in Sabina’s life. It reminds Sabina of her... (full context)
Time, Happiness, and Eternal Return Theme Icon
Words and Language Theme Icon
The bowler hat is exceedingly important to Sabina, which is why it is like a huge chasm separating... (full context)