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 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.