Places: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí, 1984 (English translation, 1984)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Political

Time of work: 1960’s and 1970’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Prague

*Prague. Unbearable Lightness of Being, TheCapital city of Czechoslovakia and home of Tomas, a successful surgeon and one of the novel’s two protagonists, and the primary setting. At the beginning of the narrative Tomas welcomes a young waitress named Tereza, whom he met in a small provincial town some months before, into his flat on the presumption that she has moved to Prague to find work. Later he realizes that she has actually come to Prague to pursue a romantic relationship with him and that finding a job there is a mere pretense to gain access into his life. Although Prague promises greater financial and cultural opportunities for Tereza than her provincial home, her main goal is to win the love of Tomas.

In Tereza’s mind, location is inconsequential–she must live with Tomas, and feels that her love for him will flourish no matter where it may take them. By the time she reaches Prague it has already taken her from her home and family, but Tereza is unmoved by the loss. A fatalist to the end, she believes from the first time she sees Tomas that he is her destiny. She sacrifices everything she knows in order to be a part of his life.

Kundera’s choice of Prague as the novel’s main setting provides him with a landscape for commentary on the challenges of everyday life in a Soviet satellite nation during the final years of the Cold War. According to the narrator, the people of postwar Prague have an “inferiority complex” because, unlike other European cities, theirs was almost completely spared the physical ravages of World War II. Most of Prague’s historical architecture remained intact, and Prague was not forced to restore them after the war. Ironically, whereas most European cities enjoyed a renaissance as they rebuilt, Prague grew stylistically and spiritually stagnant. In this sense, the Soviet occupation seemed the fitting capstone to a process of moral and aesthetic bankruptcy that had been developing for decades.


*Zurich. Swiss city to which Tomas and Tereza flee after the Soviets invade Czechoslovakia. An intellectual who has gone on record as a critic of communism, Tomas fears reprisals in Czechoslovakia. In Zurich, a colleague finds a position for him as a surgeon in a large, prestigious clinic. However, Tereza feels estranged by the anonymity of the cosmopolitan Swiss city. As her relationship with Tomas strengthens, she gradually convinces him that the sense of freedom they both feel outside the Iron Curtain is merely illusory and that their isolation from their native culture and way of life will damage them far more than the threats of communist ideologues. She urges him to return with her to Prague.

Although he becomes emotionally committed to Tereza, Tomas has a history of womanizing. In Prague, Tomas has sexual encounters with several women, and Tereza assumes that moving to a strange foreign city will end his affairs. However, Tomas manages illicit affairs in Zurich as well. When Tereza realizes that simply moving away from Czechoslovakia will not stop her lover’s infidelities, the idea of living in a place where she is isolated from her friends and family and is dependent on Tomas for emotional support loses its appeal.

By the middle of the novel Tomas and Tereza return to Prague, having found that Western Europe holds little of the happiness and fulfillment it once promised. Despite holding a wealth of professional and cultural opportunities for both Tomas and Tereza, Zurich paradoxically affords neither a strong sense of personal growth or freedom.

Collective farm

Collective farm. Spartan collective farm in the Czechoslovakian countryside in which the final chapters of the novel are set. Because of his record of opposition to communist totalitarianism, Tomas is not permitted to resume work in Prague as a physician. After three years of working there as a window washer, he tires of living in the city that has rejected him. He and Tereza eventually take jobs on a collective farm, where they resign themselves to a simple existence herding cattle.

A few years later, both Tomas and Tereza are killed in an automobile accident. However, their demise is not characterized as tragic. Their decision to capitulate to a complacent, nameless existence on the collective farm rather than remain in Prague and actively resist Soviet oppression suggests that, at least figuratively speaking, Tomas and Tereza “died” long before any accident claimed their lives. However both were content to do so, seeing their personal commitment to each other as far more significant than any obligations to a state no longer sympathetic to the needs, dreams, or desires of its individual citizens.

BibliographyAji, Aron, ed. Milan Kundera and the Art of Fiction: Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 1992. Useful collection of essays on the novels, including The Unbearable Lightness of Being, dealing with narrative technique and characterization.Banerjee, Maria Nemcova. Terminal Paradox: The Novels of Milan Kundera. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990. This philosophical and psychological analysis contains a comprehensive chapter on The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Well worth reading for its insights into Kundera’s technique and characters.Christian Science Monitor. LXXVI, August 8, 1984, p. 25.Commonweal. CXI, May 18, 1984, p. 298.Hruby, Peter. Daydreams and Nightmares: Czech Communist and Ex-Communist Literature 1917-1987. Boulder, Colo.: East European Monographs, 1990. Contains a lucid chapter on Milan Kundera’s life and political and literary development. Briefly discusses individual works, including The Unbearable Lightness of Being.Kundera, Milan. “An Interview with Milan Kundera.” Interview by Jason Weiss. New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly 8, no. 3 (Spring, 1986): 405-410. Kundera discusses The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the recurrent themes in all his works, and the influence of Franz Kafka on his novels.Library Journal. CIX, May 1, 1984, p. 915.The Nation. CCXXXVIII, May 12, 1984, p. 582.New Statesman. CVII, May 25, 1984, p. 26.The New York Review of Books. May 10, 1984, p. 3.The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, April 29, 1984, p. 1.Newsweek. CIII, April 30, 1984, p. 77.Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, March 9, 1984, p. 97.Review of Contemporary Fiction 9, no. 2 (Summer, 1989). Special issue devoted to Kundera and his works, including essays and an interview.The Wall Street Journal. CCIII, April 27, 1984, p. 26.
Categories: Places