Review: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Title: The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Author: Milan Kundera
Pages: 306
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Release Date: November 12th, 1988
Publisher: Harpercollins
Source: Personal Copy

We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.
In the opening pages of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera directly challenges Nietzsche's concept of eternal return, which is the idea that everything we experience has occurred before and will continue to recur infinitely. This novel follows the lives of four characters to highlight the alternative. Kundera's basic argument is that because we only live one life, the decisions we make are insignificant. The idea that our choices don't have any universal significance is perceived as an unbearable lightness.

Kundera's extremely philosophical novel centers around two couples during the Soviet occupation and rise of communism in Prague during the late 1960s. Tomás is a successful surgeon with a penchant for serial womanizing, while his wife Tereza is a photojournalist with many psychological issues concerning her body. Also there is Sabina, a young artist who elates in the act of betrayal. While being Tomás's mistress she also starts an affair with the married Franz, a professor in Geneva. Kundera uses these four people to explore the themes of weight, sexuality, and fate while showcasing the human struggles with fidelity, love, family, and Communism.
The only certainty is: the lightness/weight opposition is the most mysterious, most ambiguous of all.
That quote basically sums up my experience reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being. While the philosophical musings were thought provoking, I had a hard time truly understanding the message Kundera was trying to get across. Much of the novel feels quite choppy with short chapters that jump between the different viewpoints of the characters. At times the narrator himself takes over and begins meditating on his own ideas which, while adding an additional layer to the characters' psyches, only emphasizes the uneven narrative structure. I don't think this is necessarily a negative though, and feels more like a mimic of life as it is messy and rough as well.

When I finished I was immediately aware of the fact that to truly grasp and understand what Kundera was attempting to convey I would have to reread the book. This speaks to the existential and philosophical nature of the text. Without close attention, the narrative can become muddled, and I definitely don't recommend reading this one at night before bed. The characters are not fully fleshed out, and are used more as examples to explain Kundera's ideas. I do think this book presents some interesting viewpoints and food for thought; however, I can't say I was satisfied after reading this one. Maybe if I had a group to discuss and dissect the text with I would have gotten more out of it than I did. I can see why this is considered a modern classic, but for me this was only mediocre.


  1. I like esoteric books, but I have a feeling that I am not smart enough to really be able to appreciate this one. It sounds rather dense and heavy on the ideas and themes, which might be hard for me right now as I am in the mood for something more gripping and fun. You did write a beautiful review of it though, and I found your thoughts on the book very genuine and thoughtful.

  2. I didn't realize this book was so philosophy heavy. It sounds interesting and I would still like to give it a shot one day but it probably won't be any time soon.

  3. You know, don't feel bad about not enjoying this book. Kundera is notoriously good at being deliberately difficult. He said in one of his essays that he only wants readers that already have a literary culture and you can't enjoy books without it. He's a really pedant, Euro-Centric writer who wants to belong to a literary tradition more than he wants to tell stories. Lightness is one of his best works, but the rest goes from bad to unbearable.

  4. My book group read this one earlier this year, and the members had very mixed reactions. Like you, I felt it was mediocre. Perhaps if I'd had a really solid grasp of the philosophy behind it I'd have enjoyed it more, but as it was, I just felt bogged down and confused. I'm glad I read it, though, since now I can check it off my list!

  5. This is one of those books I read when I was 19 or 20 and loved, mostly for the language, but as time passed and I thought about it more, I liked it less and less. Since it's been so long since I've read it, I barely remember what I liked about it. I tend to agree with others, though, that it was a little too... I don't know. He seems to be one of those authors that writes only for a select group of people, the rest of us be damned, and that's an attitude in a writer I do not respect or appreciate.


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