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In The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, the inquisitive Tereza ponders what makes her unique. While staring at herself in a mirror she wonders if changing her physical features can affect who she is on the inside; whether her exterior shell affects her emotional and mental state. Kundera allows his characters to explore the finer points of ‘self’ and ‘being’ by peppering his novel with reflective moments like the one with Tereza and the mirror.
Kundera never formally introduces his characters, and instead plunges the reader straight into the deep end of the plot, sidestepping the ladder completely. Without a physical description, the reader is forced to concoct a mental picture of his own, giving him some leeway to mold the characters. One is never concerned with the physical traits of the characters; reference is rarely made to their exterior appearances. Instead, the reader nose-dives into intimate thoughts of characters whom he barely know. The only common link between all four characters is sex, which permeates every encounter and is one of the best ways to distinguish between the groups.
Each of the four characters has a ‘self’. It is purely external, something that can be experienced before knowing their attitudes, mannerisms or feelings. Hair texture, eye color, and lip shape are all part of the ‘self’ of the characters. They also possess a ‘being’, which is everything the ‘self’ is not, essentially, the indispensable qualities that distinguish one person from the next. The ‘being’ also includes the collection of decisions that each character makes. These decisions shape their core and help determine why the characters act the way they do.
Tomas’ ‘being’ can be defined by his obsessive and unrepentant womanizing. His philandering is what first links him to Tereza and what keeps him close to Sabina. He is also defined by his evasion of responsibility, something he chose to leave far behind when he discarded his first wife and son. The life Tomas chooses next, one of “erotic friendships” and bachelor living, further describes what makes Tomas truly himself. Only when he is having sexual relations with multiple women, taking something from each of them, is he truly in his element. He can easily differentiate between sex and love, and refuses to give up his affairs even when he realizes he loves his wife.
Tereza is on the other end of the spectrum, demonstrating that her ‘being’ is radically dissimilar by sticking by Tomas’ side throughout his affairs. Her ‘being’ can be characterized by her fierce loyalty and desire to be unique to her darling. She desires an exclusive relationship with Tomas, something that is seemingly unattainable because he refuses to end his affairs. Tereza wants to be different and special from all the women Tomas continues to have sex with, and cannot do so because as long as he continues to have affairs, he is telling her that she is not worth the monogamy. The feeling of not being special is destroying her ‘being’ and begins to seep into her dreams. In one of her nightmares she is exactly the same as every other woman walking around the pool, and this will eventually lead to her death. Tereza cannot differentiate between love and sex, although she tries by having an affair. She is emotionally needy and very attached to Tomas, despite his flaws. We can see what kind of character Tereza is because she latches onto Tomas’ hand the first night they spend together, and every night afterwards.
Sabina’s ‘being’ can be characterized by her betrayals. She adores clandestine affairs and will abandon anyone who gets too close. She and Tomas share a special relationship because they both take sex so lightly, keeping it separate from the heart. Instead of labeling Sabina the villain and allowing her to take much of the blame, Kundera creates a scenario where Tereza and Sabina meet and actually enjoy each other’s company. She becomes more fully developed after the meeting with Tereza; instead of giving her one role to play, Kundera gives her a human side which is much more life-like.
Franz is consumed with his affair with Sabina, and his conscious mind rules his sex life. His ‘self’ is a bit cowardly, but he ends up doing what he considers the right thing, and tells his wife. However, Kundera didn’t write Unbearable Lightness to be a moral story, so the reader shouldn’t be surprised when Sabina promptly leaves him. He intermingles sex and love, confuses one with the other and his mistake gives Sabina a wormhole to escape through.
All four characters are associated with one another through sex. Although it runs through the entire novel, Kundera cannot be accused having written a lewd book. He keeps it clean, only using sex as a vehicle to show how each character makes decisions. They all take a different attitude towards becoming attached and staying monogamous, or running away.
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