Power is constantly at play in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The novel largely takes place in Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s, during a time known as the Prague Spring. In the winter of 1968, mass protests broke out across Czechoslovakia to push back against the Communist state that had been declared in the country after World War II. The protests lasted until late August, at which time the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia in an effort to subdue the growing social and political unrest. The fight for political power and freedom is mirrored in the personal relationships of Kundera’s main characters. For instance, after Tereza discovers Tomas’s infidelity and tries to kill herself, Tomas knows that he is “in an unjustifiable situation” that is based “on complete inequality.” Tereza is powerless compared to Tomas, just like Czechoslovakia is powerless compared to the Soviet Union. Through the power struggles portrayed in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera effectively argues that true equality—in politics and in love—is impossible; there will always be one party who holds power over the other.
While politics is not the main focus of Kundera’s novel, the absolute power of communism and the Soviet Union over the people of Czechoslovakia is clear, despite communism’s claims of equality. Even before the political uprising of the Prague Spring and the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Russians, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia had control of the people. When Tereza was a young girl, her father dared to speak anti-communist sentiments and was arrested and sentenced to “a long term in prison.” The Czechoslovakian people are completely overpowered, both by their own government and, later, by the Soviet Union. Once the Soviet Union occupies Czechoslovakia, Czech political representatives are “hauled away like criminals by the Russian police.” In Moscow, the Czechoslovakian politicians are forced to sign a compromise agreement. When Alexander Dubcek, the first president of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, returns to Prague from Moscow, he addresses the nation on the radio, but he is so “devastated” by his Russian detention that he stutters and takes long pauses while speaking. It is clear that the Soviet Union has complete control over Dubcek and the Czechoslovakian government, even when he is not literally imprisoned. Tereza, a photographer, takes hundreds of pictures during the Prague Spring, and when she takes a close-up photo of a Soviet officer aiming a gun at a group of Czechoslovakians, she is arrested by the Russian military and kept overnight at military headquarters. She is released the next day, but the message is clear: Tereza is not free to do as she pleases—the Russians have all the power.
This unequal distribution of power is reflected in personal relationships within the novel as well, especially sexual relationships, as one person is always in control. This suggests that inequality is a given in private relationships as well as in political ones. When Tomas has sex, be it with his wife Tereza or his lover Sabina, he “commands” them to “Strip!” He doesn’t ask them to take their clothes off or simply suggest it; he demands it, “firmly and authoritatively,” and they both obey. Tomas obviously holds the power in his sexual relationships. Sabina may not have any power in her relationship with Tomas, but she has all the power in her relationship with Franz. Franz is weak and never gives Sabina orders like Tomas does. “He simply lacks the strength to give orders,” Sabina reflects to herself. In Sabina’s relationship with Franz, Sabina has the upper hand, making it clear that every relationship has an unequal power dynamic, regardless of who is playing which role. Tomas does not just hold power over Tereza in matters of sex; he has power over her in general and can make her fall asleep instantly just by whispering in her ear. He has “complete control over her sleep: she doze[s] off at the second he [chooses].” Tereza is not even free to choose when she closes her eyes, again suggesting that she is not equal compared to Tomas.
By the end of the novel, however, there is a complete reversal of the power between Tereza and Tomas. Tereza has a dream in which Tomas is shot by the secret police, only to turn into a helpless and scared rabbit that Tereza holds in her hand. Tereza later realizes that Tomas has aged terribly. His love for her and his desire to stay with her in Czechoslovakia mean that he has lost his career as a surgeon and everything he has worked for his entire life. He appears weak to Tereza now and has been “transformed into the rabbit in her arms.” To turn into a rabbit, Tereza says, is to lose “all strength. It means that one is not stronger than the other anymore.” But of course, one person does still have the power—it’s just that now Tereza is in charge instead of Tomas. Through this reversal in Tereza and Tomas’s relationship, Kundera ultimately suggests that though power dynamics may shift, true equality in any sense will remain unobtainable.
Power, Politics, and Inequality ThemeTracker
Power, Politics, and Inequality Quotes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Let me return to this dream. Its horror did not begin with Tomas’s first pistol shot; it was horrifying from the outset. Marching naked in formation with a group of naked women was for Tereza the quintessential image of horror. When she lived at home, her mother forbade her to lock the bathroom door. What she meant by her injunction was: Your body is just like all other bodies; you have no right to shame; you have no reason to hide something that exists in millions of identical copies. In her mother’s world all bodies were the same and marched behind one another in formation. Since childhood, Tereza had seen nudity as a sign of concentration camp uniformity, a sign of humiliation.
Thinking in Zurich of those days, she no longer felt any aversion to the man. The word “weak” no longer sounded like a verdict. Any man confronted with superior strength is weak, even if he has an athletic body like Dubcek’s. The very weakness that at the time had seemed unbearable and repulsive, the weakness that had driven Tereza and Tomas from the country, suddenly attracted her. She realized that she belonged among the weak, in the camp of the weak, in the country of the weak, and that she had to be faithful to them precisely because they were weak and gasped for breath in the middle of sentences.
The pain grew more intense. He could not speak. It occurred to him that his womanizing was also something of an “Es muss sein!”—an imperative enslaving him. He longed for a holiday. But for an absolute holiday, a rest from all imperatives, from all “Es muss sein!" If he could take a rest (a permanent rest) from the hospital operating table, then why not from the world operating table, the one where his imaginary scalpel opened the strongbox women use to hide their illusory one-millionth part dissimilarity?
Rejection and privilege, happiness and woe—no one felt more concretely than Yakov how interchangeable opposites are, how short the step from one pole of human existence to the other.
Then, at the very outset of the war, he fell prisoner to the Germans, and other prisoners, belonging to an incomprehensible, standoffish nation that had always been intrinsically repulsive to him, accused him of being dirty. Was he, who bore on his shoulders a drama of the highest order (as fallen angel and Son of God), to undergo judgment not for something sublime (in the realm of God and the angels) but for shit? Were the very highest of drama and the very lowest so vertiginously close?
Vertiginously close? Can proximity cause vertigo?
It can. When the north pole comes so close as to touch the south pole, the earth disappears and man finds himself in a void that makes his head spin and beckons him to fall.
If rejection and privilege are one and the same, if there is no difference between the sublime and the paltry, if the Son of God can undergo judgment for shit, then human existence loses its dimensions and becomes unbearably light.
“Kitsch” is a German word born in the middle of the sentimental nineteenth century, and from German it entered all Western languages. Repeated use, however, has obliterated its original metaphysical meaning: kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.
All her life she had proclaimed kitsch her enemy. But hadn’t she in fact been carrying it with her? Her kitsch was her image of home, all peace, quiet, and harmony, and ruled by a loving mother and wise father. It was an image that took shape within her after the death of her parents. The less her life resembled that sweetest of dreams, the more sensitive she was to its magic, and more than once she shed tears when the ungrateful daughter in a sentimental film embraced the neglected father as the windows of the happy family’s house shone out into the dying day.
Though touched by the song, Sabina did not take her feeling seriously. She knew only too well that the song was a beautiful lie. As soon as kitsch is recognized for the lie it is, it moves into the context of non-kitsch, thus losing its authoritarian power and becoming as touching as any other human weakness. For none among us is superman enough to escape kitsch completely. No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.
The fantasy of the Grand March that Franz was so intoxicated by is the political kitsch joining leftists of all times and tendencies. The Grand March is the splendid march on the road to brotherhood, equality, justice, happiness; it goes on and on, obstacles notwithstanding, for obstacles there must be if the march is to be the Grand March.
The dictatorship of the proletariat or democracy? Rejection of the consumer society or demands for increased productivity? The guillotine or an end to the death penalty? It is all beside the point. What makes a leftist a leftist is not this or that theory but his ability to integrate any theory into the kitsch called the Grand March.
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?
An inscription reading HE WANTED THE KINGDOM OF GOD ON EARTH
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.