Analysis Of Eternal Return Through The Structure Of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness Of Being

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How does the structure of the novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, show eternal return throughout the novel. In order to examine the structure of the novel, the concept of Eternal Return as well as Milan Kundera’s perception of Eternal return must first be explained. Kundera takes a strong position on Nietzche’s theory of eternal return. “Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line” (Kundera, 298). Furthermore, Kundera believes that this is a reason the human race may be doomed to be unhappy, because, “Happiness is the longing for repetition” (Kundera, 298). This would mean that in Kundera’s eyes, having weight in life would be better than having lightness. After learning of Kundera’s view on eternal return, it is surprising to see how often the concept is shown throughout the novel. 

The novel switches back and forth between the lives of Tomas, Tereza, Franz, and Sabina. While each of these characters interacts with one another throughout their lives, the entire story is told from each character’s perspective. Part one tells the story from the perspective of Tomas, part two from the perspective of Tereza, and the novel switches back and forth between each character over the remaining parts. In addition to switching back and forth between each character’s perspective of the story, Kundera also switches back and forth between his own thoughts, a few different philosophical theories, and the story itself. In this way, Kundera writes his novel in a non-linear fashion, much like the concept of eternal return. Part one begins with explaining the concept of eternal return, as well as lightness and weight. 

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Kundera gives his own view, as well as the view of Nietzche, the philosopher who popularized the theory of eternal return. Kundera then begins the story from the perspective of Tomas. Tomas has just met Tereza and believes he is falling in love with her. Tomas can be described as the epitome of lightness. He is constantly having sex with many different women and keeps a rule of threes. He will either see a woman for a long period of time but will allow at least three weeks between each woman, or he will see a woman three times in a short period of time and will never see her again after that. He believes that there is a difference between sex and love. “Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman)” (Kundera, 15). Sex is physical, and is solely for the purpose of pleasure, rather than expressing love. 

Love is separate and is reserved for a specific person rather than many. Tomas and Tereza begin to live together, all the while Tomas is continuing to have sex with other women. Tereza is unable to understand this and is extremely hurt by Tomas’s continuous cheating. Part two tells almost the same story but from the perspective of Tereza. The part begins by explaining the beginnings of Tereza’s life, and how she found herself on the front door of Tomas’s apartment. The section continues and shows the same events from part one, but from the view of Tereza. Tereza is heavy, she has also fallen in love with Tomas, but cannot understand how he is able to separate the idea of love and sex. In part one, Tereza reads a letter that one of Tomas’s mistresses, Sabina, had written for him, “I want to make love to you in my studio...the worst was that the letter was dated. It was quite recent, written long after Tereza had moved in with Tomas” (Kundera, 16). This same event happens in part two, but from Tereza’s perspective, “I want to make love to you in my studio...She yearned for the two of them to merge into a hermaphrodite. Then the other women’s bodies would be their playthings.” (Kundera, 62). The first quote is 46 pages before the second quote, but the events of the first quote take place after that of the second quote. Tomas has already found that Tereza has read the letter from Sabina and confronts her about it. 

In the second quote, Tereza has just found the letter and is trying to think of it in a positive way for herself. Eternal Return, as mentioned before is the philosophical theory that the universe as well as human existence as occurred an infinite number of times before, and will continue to occur an infinite number of times. This would mean that rather than the accepted truth that time is linear, time is cyclical and does not move in a linear form. The same can be said about the structure of Kundera’s writing. Kundera moves back and forth between specific points in time while not confusing the reader due to telling the same story from different perspectives. Nietzsche was not the first to write about the theory of cyclical time. Greek Stoics believed that the universe underwent repeating transformations similar to that of eternal return. This theory was similar to that of Buddhists as well as Hindus. While not mentioned explicitly in the novel, Nietzsche did not expect the concept of eternal return to be accepted as truth, but rather to be pondered as a question of what if. What if all of humanity was constantly repeating itself, and all choices and actions would be repeated ad infinitum? Nietzsche imagines two responses to this question. 

One is that humanity is tragic, and doomed to experience all the pain and suffering of life again and again with no end. The other is that humanity could learn to appreciate the concept of reliving each experience, each mistake, all the happiness, all the love, as well as all the pain. His hope was that humanity would be able to achieve the latter, and from this comes the phrase Ess Muss Sein. “Ess Muss Sein” directly translates to “it must be” but is also linked to the Latin term “Amor fati”, love of one's fate. Kundera expresses Ess Muss Sein as a motif throughout the novel, and each character eventually finds themselves pondering this question. As mentioned, Kundera believes the former of Nietsche’s responses, that humanity is doomed to be unhappy. However, Through expressing the theory of eternal return through the structure of the novel, the evolution of the characters, and the motif of ess muss sein, Kundera allows the reader to answer the question for themselves. 

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