Page 3. " eternal return "

The notion that the universe has been repeating itself over and over, infinitely, and that time is cyclical. Since the universe (or the matter contained in it) is finite, but time is infinite, the number of permutations into which matter can be converted over time has to be finite and its forms will eventually repeat themselves.

Eternal recurrence was discussed in ancient India and Egypt, and also by the Pythagorean and Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece, but fell into disuse for a long time. Nietzsche, who was a brilliant classical scholar, revived the theory as a method of affirming life in the wake of the “death of God.”

While the idea that all events will eventually reoccur might initially strike a person as the “heaviest weight” (das schwerste Gewicht – see page 4 below), Nietzsche urges people to accept and embrace it as the ultimate affirmation of life.

Page 3. " Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers "

Public DomainNietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a German philosopher infamous for writing, on more than one occasion, “God is dead.” He rejected Christianity and egalitarianism (especially in the form of democracy and socialism).

Important concepts in his thought were the will to power and eternal return. His thinking influenced existentialism and postmodernism. 

Page 3. " war between two African nations in the fourteenth century "

Kanem-Bu warriors
Public DomainKanem-Bu warriors
It may be that Kundera did not have any particular war in mind here, since his precise point is that such an event would have been beneath the notice of anyone in the “developed, educated” Western world. He might have picked the 14th century because it was only in the following one that Europeans, specifically Portuguese sailors sent out by Prince Henry “the Navigator,” began to explore the West African coast.

On the other hand, there were many lengthy wars over the course of the thousand-year life of the Kanem Empire in central Africa, between the 9th and 19th centuries. In the 1370s and 1380s, the Bulalas invaded from the east and south, and pushed the Kanuri people west, where they later formed a new empire in Bornu.

This illustration of Kanem-Bu warriors is from the 1892 book The earth and its inhabitants, Africa.

Page 4. " the French Revolution "

Public Domain"The Storming of the Tuileries Palace"

Between 1789 and 1799, tremendous social and political upheaval took place in France. An absolute monarchy and a feudal system of aristocratic privilege gave way, briefly, to democratic principles of citizenship and civil rights.

Trial and execution of the king were followed by civil war, violence, and the Reign of Terror, as well as Napoleon and eventually two more revolutions.

This oil painting depicts the storming of the Tuileries Palace on August 10, 1792, after which the royal family was imprisoned. The artist is Jean Duplessis-Bertaux, who painted the event the following year.

Page 4. " chopping off heads "

Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre (1758-1794) is one of the representative figures of the French Revolution, and especially the Reign of Terror that occurred at the height of it.

A very proper man in his personal habits, he spoke strongly in favor of the execution of King Louis XVI. During the food riots and other popular uprisings that followed the king’s death by guillotine in 1793, Robespierre was elected to the nine-member Committee of Public Safety.

Because of his influence as an orator, he became a de facto dictator who drove the Reign of Terror, during which 1,285 people were guillotined in Paris. When the tide turned against him, Robespierre and his friends died under the guillotine as well.

This 1890 oil painting of Robespierre is by an unknown artist.

Page 4. " Hitler's concentration camps "

Totalitarian leader of Germany from 1933 until his suicide in 1945, Austrian-born Adolf Hitler and his cronies set up a system of prison and work camps in Germany, Poland, France, and other occupied nations in which an estimated 11 to 14 million people -- mainly Jews, Poles, Communists, intellectuals, homosexuals, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Adventists, the mentally and physically handicapped, and Soviet prisoners of war -- were executed and starved.

This photograph of Jewish slave survivors was taken at Buchenwald concentration camp by a U.S. Army soldier on the day the camp was liberated -- April 16, 1945. Future journalist, author, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel is the face next to the far post in the second row from the bottom, second box frame from the left.

Page 5. " Jesus Christ "

Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeJesus, "the Good Shepherd" - Credit: Toby Hudson

Anglicized name and title (“Yehoshua” or “Joshua” means “Yahweh delivers” or saves; and “Christus” derives from the Greek term for “Anointed One,” a translation from the Hebrew word for “Messiah”) of a Hebrew teacher who lived in Judea (present-day Israel) and became the central figure of Christianity.

The image at right is a stained glass depiction of Jesus as "the Good Shepherd," at St. John the Baptist’s Anglican Church, Ashfield, New South Wales, Australia.

Jesus is invoked by the narrator of Unbearable Lightness in a metaphor during the discussion of Nietzsche's eternal return. If everything that happens is destined to happen again, over and over, an infinite number of times, then "we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross."

Jesus is mentioned again much later, after Tomas meets Simon, his grown-up son from his first marriage. A Christian, Simon loves the remark from the Bible that is attributed to Jesus: "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." When Simon and the editor praise Tomas for the article he wrote on Oedipus and collaborators with the Communist dictatorship, Tomas objects; he has become less of a hard-liner, and says, "Punishing people who don't know what they've done is barbaric."

This reminds Simon of Jesus, and after Tomas's death he gives his father a gravestone with the inscription "He Wanted the Kingdom of God on Earth," although the narrator intimates that this is another example of kitsch.

Page 5. " das schwerste Gewicht "

German for “the heaviest weight,” which is how Nietzsche described the awful burden of knowledge of eternal return (see above).

In The Gay Science, he wrote: “What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ ... Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ ”

Page 5. " Parmenides "

Parmenides of Elea (c. 520 – 450 BCE) was a priest of Apollo and founder of the Eleatic school of ancient Greek philosophy. Elea was a Greek city on the southern coast of Italy.

The only known surviving work by Parmenides is a 150-line poem fragment (supposedly from a 3,000-line original) known as “On Nature” that describes two views of reality: “The Way of Truth” and “The Way of Opinion.”

The work seems to describe the duality between appearance and reality, though it also seems to argue that movement and change are simply appearances of a static and eternal reality.

Parmenides’ ideas influenced Plato, and thereby much of western philosophy. The dualism at the heart of his writing relates closely to the narrator's concepts of "heaviness" versus "lightness," and the story will refer to Parmenides at several critical moments later on.

Page 6. " a child someone had put in a bulrush basket "

First reference to Tereza as having come to Tomas as an unforeseen and almost accidental gift, like the infant Moses discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter in the Bible (Exodus1-2). Moses was laid in an ark of bulrushes, a paper reed made from a tall sedge. This marshland plant grows commonly along the Nile, and its thick buoyant stems can be tied together to make a small boat.

This 1638 oil painting of “Baby Moses rescued from the Nile” is by the French painter Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), the founder and greatest practitioner of 17th century French classical painting.

The narrator of Unbearable Lightness mentions the simile again on the next page, and refers to Pharoah’s daughter and Moses by name 3 or 4 pages later, in section 4 of Part One.


Page 8. " Einmal ist keinmal "

Literally, “once is not-once,” in German. The narrator says Tomas is repeating a German adage that means: what happens just once might as well not have happened at all.

Tomas is troubled by the unbearable lightness of being; in this particular case, his inability to tell whether his emotional response to the simple country girl Tereza is an instance of love or hysteria, that he cannot tell whether it would be better to stay with her or to choose to remain alone.

The narrator comments that everything comes at us without warning, that the rehearsal for life is life itself; and that life is like a sketch, except that “the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.”

But would Tomas (or we) feel better if we believed in eternal return -- and that what we experience would happen again someday?
Page 8. " Anna Karenina "

Novel by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, published in installments between 1873 and 1877, and in book form in 1878. A pinnacle of realism, and much admired by Dostoevsky, Nabokov, and subsequent writers, the story addresses many of the same issues as The Unbearable Lightness of Being -- hypocrisy, jealousy, fidelity, marriage, society, progress, carnal desire, and passion.

When Tereza travels to Prague to find Tomas, she chooses to carry a copy of the book as a way of suggesting a literary or intellectual connection between them. But it is an unhappy irony that the passion in Anna Karenina leads to a tragic for its title character and heroine.

Tomas and Tereza name their female dog Karenin after the husband in Tolstoy’s novel (section 11 of Part One; page 24 in this edition), and in section 11 of Part Two (page 52) the narrator refers to Anna Karenina in speaking of the significance of coincidences in life and in art.

Tolstoy's novel will turn up several more times in the story. For instance, in section 27 of Part Two (page 75), when Tereza realizes that moving to Switzerland with Tomas and becoming totally dependent upon him was a mistake, the narrator says she admits to herself that the copy of Anna Karenina under her arm “amounted to false papers; it had given Tomas the wrong idea.”


Page 10. " Pharaoh's daughter "

A second reference to the Biblical story of the infant Moses in the bulrushes (Exodus 1-2; see Bookmark for page 6, above).

This 1886 oil painting of Pharaoh’s daughter receiving the infant Moses is by English painter Edwin Long (1829-1891).

Page 11. " no Old Testament, no civilization as we know it "

Michelangelo's Moses
GNU Free Documentation LicenseMichelangelo's Moses

Continuing with the Moses-in-the-bulrushes simile, the narrator observes that so much subsequent history -- pretty much all of western civilization -- depended on Pharaoh’s daughter happening to find the baby in the bulrushes.

This extends the simile between the encounter between Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses, and the chance encounter of Tomas and Tereza, later to be discussed more elaborately as the result of “the six chance happenings” (section 17, Part One; page 35) or “six improbable fortuities” (section 9, Part Two; page 48) which gnaw at Tomas. All the rest of this novel rests on those chance happenings, with the implication that the great love between Tomas and Tereza (and just about anything else in life) could so easily not have occurred.

Page 11. " Oedipus, Sophocles "

Oedipus and the Sphinx by Ingres
Public DomainOedipus and the Sphinx by Ingres

In Greek myth, Oedipus (“swollen-footed”) was cast out by his parents, Laius and Jocasta, the rulers of Thebes, because of a prophecy that their son would kill his father and marry his mother. Left to die in the wilderness with his ankles pinned together, the boy was found by a shepherd and turned over to Polybus, king of Corinth, who raised Oedipus as his own.

This 1808 painting of Oedipus answering the riddles of the Sphinx was executed by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867).

The great Greek tragedian Sophocles (c. 496 – 406 BCE) wrote the most famous and influential drama about Oedipus. See a more extensive note on Sophocles' play in the Bookmark for page 153.

Page 13. " corpus delicti "

Latin phrase that means “body of crime.” In law, it refers to the actual crime that has been committed, and must be shown to have been committed, before someone may be accused of it.

The phrase is employed ironically here, because it does not refer to an actual crime but to an act of love. Tomas does not want his other mistresses to know about his budding relationship with Tereza, so he rents a separate room for her: spending the night together would be “the corpus delicti of love” that would drive his other women to “insurrection.”

The phrase will be used again in an ironic fashion in section 7 of Part Four (page 141 in this edition) when a man’s son is sentenced to five years imprisonment by the Communist government simply because he had been identified in a news photo grabbing another man by the throat, and therefore was regarded as guilty of having beaten people suspected of collaborating with the invading Russians. “This photograph was the only corpus delicti,” the father says.
Page 15. " Then she told him her dream "

This is the first of a series of dreams related in the book. Most of them are Tereza’s, and most of them will be nightmares, or at best mysterious and unpleasant. This one is about her having to watch Tomas and Sabina making love. A few pages later we’ll hear about her repeated nightmares of being torn at by cats, Tomas shooting naked women at a swimming pool, and of being dead in a hearse with a bunch of other women (section 8 of Part One, page 18).

After their trip to the spa town with all its names changed to Russian, she wakes up in tears from a dream of being buried while Tomas has gone off to be with another woman (section 18 of Part Five). The swimming pool dream turns up again in section 15 of Part Two (pages 57-58).

Some of Tereza’s dreams will not be announced as dreams, but will be narrated as if real and only be identifiable as dreams by their strangeness, or by the narrator afterwards. For example, the long and detailed story of her near-execution on Petrin Hill (sections 11-14 of Part Four) seems real but very strange, and it is only much later (section 1 of Part Seven, page 282) that the narrator casually comments that “the incident with the engineer so merged with the scene on Petrin Hill that she was hard put to tell which was a dream and which the truth.”

Only late in the book will the narrator share a couple of Tomas’s dreams, and Tereza’s dreams will take a significant turn. Thus Kundera illustrates what the narrator criticizes Freud for having overlooked: that dreaming is a creative process, and that dreams can be beautiful (see Bookmark, page 59).

Page 22. " Tristan "

Tristan and Isolde
Public DomainTristan and Isolde
Sabina has referred to Tomas by the name of a famous mythic lover from Arthurian legend. Tristan (also known as Tristram), the nephew of King Mark of Cornwall, was sent to fetch Iseult (or Isolde) from Ireland to be the king’s bride. But they both accidentally drank from a love potion and became utterly in love with each other. They undergo many different trials that test their love.

The story, which first turned up in twelfth century Celtic folklore from northern France, has subsequently inspired Sir Thomas Malory, a Wagner opera, and several films. This painting of the legendary lovers is by the British Victorian painter Herbert James Draper (1864-1920).

Although Sabina uses Tristan to symbolize the “romantic lover” part of Tomas that is in opposition to his libertine half, the situation is a little more complicated than that, because Iseult keeps her pledge to marry King Mark, after which the lovers continue their affair, which is technically adulterous.

There is a second likening of Tomas to Tristan in the novel (again, in Sabina’s mind), in section 10 of Part Three (page 124 in this edition), when Sabina is in Paris some years later and receives the news that Tomas and Tereza have died together. He died as Tristan (the romantically faithful), she thinks to herself, not as the adventurous Don Juan.

Page 23. " Saint Bernard "

St. Bernard dog in the snow
GNU Free Documentation LicenseSt. Bernard dog in the snow
A very large breed of dog, originally from the Swiss Alps and bred for rescue. Saint Bernards are legendary both for their enormous size and stories of daring rescues (one named Barry saved at least 40 people’s lives). Typically 160 to 260 pounds in weight, the largest and heaviest dog ever was a Saint Bernard named Benedictine, who weighed 357 pounds.

The earliest records of the breed date from the monks at Great St. Bernard Pass in 1707. The breed is no longer used for rescues because so many were killed in alpine avalanches that they were cross-bred with Newfoundlands in the 1850s and the long fur they inherited would freeze and weigh them down.

Page 24. " more like Karenin "

Public DomainTolstoy

Repeat reference to the novel that Tereza carried when she followed Tomas to Prague (see Bookmark, page 8). Note that though the dog is a female, Tomas thinks the dog’s face looks too “funny” to be that of a woman, so he lobbies to name it after Anna Karenina’s husband in the novel, Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, the odd man out in the love triangle.

For most of The Unbearable Lightness, the narrator will refer to the dog Karenin as “he.” Only occasionally, such as section 4 of Part Seven (page 296 in this edition), will the narrator remind us that Karenin "was after all a female."

This 1873 portrait of Tolstoy by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoy (1837-1887) is on display at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

Page 25. " occupied by Russian tanks. It was August 1968 "


On August 21, 1968, Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia (known officially as the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic) to protect Soviet interests in what had been a Communist state within the Eastern Bloc since the Second World War (or more precisely, a Communist coup d’état in February 1948).

Life in Czechoslovakia was extremely repressive during the 1950s and early 1960s, but the regime became more open and tolerant under Alexander Dubček (see Bookmark, page 26) during the “Prague Spring” of 1968. The Soviets invaded openly and forcefully to reimpose the conditions of the post-World War II Warsaw Treaty, and NATO and the U.S. did not respond as harsh conditions returned in the late 1960s and 1970s. The country would not be free of Soviet control until the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989-1991 (and the collapse of the Soviet Union) broke the hold of the Warsaw Treaty over Eastern Europe and what became the Czech Republic.

The larger political developments of 1968 are an integral part of the plot of The Unbearable Lightness of Being: they affect the fortunes of all the principal characters (from Tereza’s joyful photography during the invasion to Tomas’s dismissal from the hospital) and the choices they make (especially their various forms of escape -- Tomas and Tereza to the country, Sabina to Geneva, then Paris and the U.S.).