Milan Kundera, a prominent Czechoslovakian author who lived through both the Communist regime and the Prague spring of 1968, uses his text, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, to highlight the impact of regime change in Czechoslovakia. The Prague Spring was an uprising of the youth in Czechoslovakia due to an abrupt change in political system from Socialism to Communism. “Socialism with a human face” (Encyclopedia Britannica) is a system that promotes individual freedom, whereas Communism restricts its citizens. Kundera shows the polarity of Communism and Socialism through the connotations created in his presentation of death within the text.
The novel is based on four characters, Tomas, Franz, Tereza and Sabina, living in the late 1960’s. The contrasting views of death held by Tereza and Sabina represent Communism and Dubcek’s idea of Socialism respectively: death under physical weight symbolizing Communism and a desire to die under physical lightness symbolizing Socialism. This is significant as it presents the reader with both sides allowing them to decide which is the better governmental system to live under. It is first through the characterization of death, of both Tereza and Sabina that leads the reader to obtain an understanding of both governmental systems.
The views of death presented through both Tereza and Sabina are a symbolic representation of two philosophical themes describing ways of living, in accordance to Parmenides, an ancient philosopher who divided the worlds into opposite, and a philosophy that comes across heavily in his novel, through the use of characters. Sabina, is a woman who wants to die, knowing that her body will be free. In order to do this she “requested that her dead body be cremated and its ashes thrown to the winds.” (Kundera,173) The use of the diction “ashes” and “wind” have the connotation of being boundless. Kundera uses these terms to make the association between Sabina’s view of death and the philosophical idea of lightness in relation to living, which represents an absence of confinement, and freedom.
However, Tereza is presented to fear death by “scream[ing] in terror”(Kundera,18) in one of her dreams. It is through the use of the term “terror” that Kundera is able to show Tereza’s view of death as a representation of the philosophical idea of weight. Fear is an oppressive emotion; it restricts a person by forming boundaries around the things that they are afraid of, essentially suppressing their freedom. Much like living with the philosophical idea of weight, which represents imprisonment and constraint. Kundera is able to show his readers how the view’s of death from each of the women represents the philosophical idea of lightness and weight.
Lightness and weight are symbolic of the opposing governmental systems that existed in Czechoslovakia post World War II. Alexander Dubcek’s political programme, dubbed famously as “socialism with a human face” (Encyclopedia Britannica), promoted an alteration to Communism, one that the Soviets had not envisaged, an alteration that would allow more freedom for individuals. This meant greater freedoms and less oppressive policies with regard to personal freedoms. When the philosophical idea of lightness is juxtaposed to “Socialism with a human face” the reader is able to visualize multiple similarities. For instance, the freedom and the “absence of a burden” (Kundera, 5) in the Dubcek’s system, “causes man to be lighter than air” (Kundera, 5) which in essence resembles freedom. However, in a communist society, an individual’s best interests are indistinguishable from the interests of the collective.
Hence, the ideology of an individual freedom is at direct odds with a communist ideology. The only reason to hold individual speech and information rights would be to better the society. Essentially establishing Communism as lack of freedom. Again, the reader is able to find the similarities between Communism and the philosophical idea of weight. “burdens crush us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground.”(Kundera,5) The term burden is symbolic of the government in Communism that restricts its citizens to freedom, “pin[ing]” (Kundera,5) them down. Furthermore, the connotation of the diction “crush” is one of weight. This allows the reader to form a connection between system of Communism and the philosophical idea of weight.
The narration, in “Unbearable Lightness of Being,” illustrates each Sabina’s and Tereza’s view of death, and therefore their corresponding political affiliation. For instance, Tereza, who died in such a way that represents weight, has a dream in which she, along with other naked women, marched around a pool. If one of the women made a mistake, they would be shot and left to “floating just below the surface” (Kundera,18) Through the narration of Tereza’s dream the reader is able to obtain representations of Communism. For example, Kundera’s portrayal of the women naked and marching together alludes to a society in which all members are vulnerable, yet equal. Furthermore, the description of “the man standing in the basket”(Kundera, 253) who looked over the women, depicts the government. She later informs the reader that the man in the basket was in fact Tomas, a character in which Tereza falls deeply in love with. This enlightens the reader that Tereza has a form of passion towards Communism, further emphasizing her affiliation to Communism. Furthermore, the use of the term “float” represents “Socialism with a human face” because the women are free, as there is no grounding influence that holds the women down. “Tereza huddled against Tomas” (Kundera,19) in fear that she may be forced to live under the system of socialism with a human face by being shot and left to float.
However, Sabina who lived and died in a way that represents lightness, “could not understand why the dead would want to have imitation palaces built over them.” (Kundera,123) it caused her to hypothesize that “the dead can no longer get out. (Kundera,123) The thought of the dead being trapped “horrified her”(Kundera,123) Sabina in these quotes is referring to a buried body. It is through this description of being entrapped, that Kundera is able to establish a link between the dead being buried to Communism, and the fact that Sabina is “horrified” portrays her apprehensiveness towards Communism. Furthermore, Sabina wanting her “ashes to be thrown to the wind” (Kundera,273) reveals to the reader that she wants to die in such a way that resembles lightness, by her ashes flowing freely in the wind without constraint. Through this presentation of Sabina’s death, Kundera informs his readers that Sabina has a political affiliation towards Dubcek’s Socialism as it is a system that promotes individual freedom.
Through the use of Parmenides’ philosophical ideas which are presented through the view’s of death in respect to Sabina and Tereza, Kundera has been able to show two opposing governmental systems that were present in 1968. By doing so, Kundera has been able to flesh out many important underlying messages about each system. Such as the connotation of each governmental system, for instance, Communism having a sense of entrapment, while Dubcek’s Socialism with freedom. Kundera has not labeled each system as being good or bad, but has linked it up to the philosophical idea founded by Parmenides’, and that is the dichotomy of life in the form as lightness and weight. Through this Kundera has allowed his readers to form their own opinion as to which system they feel more comfortable with, “Socialism with a human face” or Communism.