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In Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera depicts a society almost devoid of human connection. Kundera utilizes the characters Tomas, Sabina, Franz, and Tereza to explore the inability for human beings to allow themselves to attach to others, either consciously or subconsciously.
Tomas’s tendency to place his own priorities above others renders him unable to fully comprehend and exhibit the selflessness that love and connection requires. He fears commitment for the responsibility it inevitably brings. The thought of acting purely for the good of others repulses him, as demonstrated by his inability to sustain relationships of any form, whether with women, or family such as his son. He claims an inability to “live side by side with any woman, and could be fully himself only as a bachelor” (Kundera, 10). Tomas’s ideal life is one where he could indulge in the sin of selfishness and live without the influence of others affecting his decisions. He is unwilling to compromise, exhibiting that he honors his own desires above those of others. He is also unable to sleep in the presence of others, demonstrating the innate sense of discomfort once he has to allot for the presence and emotions of others. Love then becomes a burden that would compromise the pure selfishness of his life. However, Tomas seems to free himself of his flaw once he falls in love with Tereza. Tomas explains his newfound love through the idea of compassion, where he experiences emotionally telepathy with Tereza and feels the sensations she feels, whether it is pleasure or pain. Through compassion, Tomas is able to emotionally become one with Tereza. Through alleviating her pain, Tomas alleviates his own as well, providing a solution to his selfish tendencies. Kundera sets up his novel in a duality of opposites; lightness and weight, light and darkness, warmth and cold. Selfishness and compassion therefore becomes another set of opposites, as compassion is capable of diminishing selfish desires and encouraging the compromise that is essential to be able to experience love.
Kundera uses Franz to explore an alienation that occurs due to an inclination to live within the fantasy of his dreams and inability to understand his interactions. Franz is established as a dreamer who often opts for the ideal rather than truth. He demonstrates his alienation within his own mindset by his failed relationships with his wife and Sabina. Franz was capable only of a logical understanding of human language, but not the semantics that underlies it. He sheltered his wife emotionally “for twenty years” because “he had seen his mother- a poor, weak creature who need his protection- in his wife… because of a misunderstanding!” (Kundera, 118). Franz lived a lie based on miscommunication for twenty years; without truth and communication, human beings cannot experience love and connection. A combination of his preference for the unreal and lack of human understanding led him to subconsciously sabotage his relationship with Sabina as well. He lived in the “darkness [that] was pure, perfect, thoughtless, visionless… for [Sabina], darkness did not mean infinity; for her, it meant a disagreement with what she saw… the refusal to see” (Kundera, 95). Franz relished in the boundless freedom of his daydreams. He depended upon it too heavily as an escape from life; to the extent it eventually overpowered the reality of his life. Darkness is perfect because it is visionless, he can imagine whatever his heart desires. However, as he dwells in the unreal, he is unable to sustain his relationships and interactions because he does not understand what elements are required to sustain them. He could not comprehend that his desire to live a fantasy cost him his relationship with Sabina, who was repulsed by fantasy as the rejection of the real. Franz is capable of only a façade of human connection, but in reality is alienated due to his inability to understand interactions.
Sabina, one of the most extreme characters depicted by Kundera, lives and seemingly revels in her completely emotional alienation. Her detached nature is a manifestation of her disgust with society, either with the repressive influences of society or the human weakness that fall victim to it. She demonstrates obvious disdain for human weakness through her intolerance for Franz. Franz surrenders power to the ones he love, and would never order them around, which “struck her as grotesque” (Kundera, 112). Franz demonstrates the human weakness that surrenders to the ways of society, an idea she detests. She thrives upon betrayals for the freedom and lightness it provides her. She refuses to allow society to control her decisions or impulses. Her ideals are revealed in her lifestyle and mindset. She strictly maintains that love must be private: “Sabina did not suffer in the least from having to keep her love secret. On the contrary, only be doing so could she live in truth” (Kundera, 113). Once her affairs become public, there is now an outside influence affecting her decisions. Sabina well understands this power of destruction society holds. She could only live freely and indulge in her own thoughts without the presence of others that might lead her to subconsciously alter her behavior to accommodate for the norm. However, by considering the presence of society a burden, she ultimately admits a hidden regard for what others think of her. This is reinforced by her idolization of the bowler hat, which not only embodies the past of her family, but also the lovemaking with Tomas. She attempts to recreate that fleeting moment on multiple occasions (such as her encounters with Franz); however, she is continually disappointed in her sole search for eternal return.
Sabina also demonstrates a pure affection and connection for Tomas, one of the only men who ever understood her. She attempts to vocalize her strong affection, but instead is only capable of uttering, “’you don’t know how happy I am to be with you’, that was the most her reserved nature allowed her to express” (Kundera, 98). Sabina is so consumed by her overwhelming desire to escape the effects of society that she does not realize she is ultimately entrapping herself by her unrealistic mindset. She regards love as weakness and a surrender of power, and chooses instead to exercise lightness and promiscuity. However, her fear of society and commitment has paralyzed her actions that she cannot express her affection for Tomas. Sabina, one of the most complicated and extremes characters Kundera creates, demonstrates that an absolute intolerance for human weakness, emotions, and love causes a subconscious alienation through a self-entrapment in her inability to break rank of her own expectations.
Kundera demonstrates that no one is free of the inevitable alienation, even the most romantic of characters, Tereza. Through her ten year relationship with Tomas, where she relinquished her own desires and needs in order to please Tomas, Tereza is still partially alienated in the end. Tomas will never provide the pure love and devotion, as contrasted by Karenin. Tereza admits Karenin provided a “better love” because:
It is a completely selfless love… Perhaps all the questions we ask of love, to measure, test, probe, and save it, have the additional effect of cutting it short. Perhaps the reason we are unable to love is that we yearn to be loved… we demand something from our partner instead of delivering ourselves up to him demand-free and asking for nothing but his company (Kundera, 297).
Human alienation is inevitable in today’s society since we have lost sight and understanding of the true purity of love. The insecurities people experience (manifested in attempts to measure and test love) only act as a negative reminder that love is vulnerable to destruction.
Kundera exposes the detached nature of human society through the interactions and confessions of Tomas, Franz, Sabina, and Tereza. The alienation of society is a result of selfishness, miscommunication, and fear. People become entrapped within an absolute pursuit for human individuality, freedom, and the illusion of perfection that they disregard the true source of happiness, love and human connection. However, despite the social criticism, Kundera exemplifies through the psyches of his characters that human nature is fragile, and people are ultimately attempting to protect themselves from the pain that accompanies love. Kundera showcases the unfortunate truth that the purity of society has decayed to the extent that each individual must honor his or her own desires above all else. Selfishness permeates, overpowers, and tarnishes the purity and goodness that existed in society, and force individuals to place themselves as the top priority in order to avoid the pain inflicted by others.
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