The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being


Milan Kundera

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Eternal Return Term Analysis

A philosophical concept that assumes that everything in the universe—including people, events, and animals—repeats and recurs in a similar way over infinite time and space. The theory of eternal return has been around since antiquity, but it is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher from the 19th century, whom Kundera directly references in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Ultimately, Kundera rejects the idea of eternal return and instead argues that human existence occurs on a straight, fixed line in time and space.

Eternal Return Quotes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The The Unbearable Lightness of Being quotes below are all either spoken by Eternal Return or refer to Eternal Return. For each quote, you can also see the other terms 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 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 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 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 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?


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:
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Eternal Return Term Timeline in The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The timeline below shows where the term Eternal Return appears in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1, Chapter 1
Time, Happiness, and Eternal Return Theme Icon
Lightness, Weight, and Dichotomies  Theme Icon
19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche has long confounded philosophers with his take on eternal return —the age-old belief that the universe and everything in existence repeat on an infinite loop.... (full context)
Time, Happiness, and Eternal Return Theme Icon
Lightness, Weight, and Dichotomies  Theme Icon
Power, Politics, and Inequality Theme Icon
...concentration camps. The ability to appreciate Hitler’s art, the narrator says, illustrates the absence of eternal return —“everything is pardoned in advance and therefore everything cynically permitted.” (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 2
Time, Happiness, and Eternal Return Theme Icon
Lightness, Weight, and Dichotomies  Theme Icon
Words and Language Theme Icon
According to Nietzsche, eternal return is “the heaviest of burdens,” which means that human life stands out in its weightlessness,... (full context)
Part 5, Chapter 16
Time, Happiness, and Eternal Return Theme Icon
...would go on to a third planet, and a fourth, and so on. That was eternal return to Tomas, and that was how he thought of optimism and pessimism. Optimism was thinking... (full context)