The chief protagonist of the novel, a brilliant Prague surgeon and intellectual. Having divorced early and lost contact with his ex-wife and son, Tomas is a light-hearted womanizer who lives for his work as a ctor. After falling in love with and marrying the emotionally needy Tereza, Tomas finds himself trapped between the womanizing he cannot give up, and his genuine love for his new wife. In a politically charged time, Tomas is an independent thinker and hence objectionable to the Communist government, but personally he would identify himself as apolitical. In many ways, especially sexually, Tomas is "light," a libertine.
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Tomas's young wife. Tereza grew up in a small Czech town, brought up in the vulgar and invasive presence of her mother. Seeking escape from that small world, Tereza worships books, culture, and kindness. Identifying Tomas as a kindred spirit and outsider, she falls in love instantly and permanently. In Prague, Tomas's womanizing drives Tereza to the brink of insanity. Although she attempts to understand her husband and his lifestyle and cannot argue with him logically, Tereza is unable to be "light" about her love or sexuality. She finds some fulfillment in her work as photographer, especially during the Soviet tank occupation; she does dangerous and politically dissident work as a photojournalist.
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Tomas's favorite mistress and closest friend. A talented painter. Sabina betrays, successively, her father's home, her art school, her lovers, and ultimately her country. Sabina is as beautiful and original as her artwork; early in life, she identified ki tsch, or bad, sentimental, insistently sunny propaganda art, and lives her life as an attack on kitsch. She cares deeply for both Tomas and Tereza, even if she cannot understand why Tomas would trade his freedom for domesticity. Ultimately her desire for freedom leads Sabina to leave her love, Franz, and lose all contact with her past. Sabina is the "lightest" character in the novel.
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A Geneva professor and idealist. Sabina's lover. Franz falls in love with Sabina, whom he (erroneously) considers a liberal and romantically tragic Czech dissident. Sabina considers both of those identities kitsch. He is tortured by the fact that he must betray his wife in order to see Sabina. Ultimately he leaves his wife in what to him is an act of courage, but to Sabina seems an unhappy and sentimental choice. Franz identifies strongly with the European liberal left, loves parades and marches, and idol izes his dead mother. Abandoned by Sabina, he finds solace in the arms of a perfectly ordinary young student who loves him.
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Tomas's son by his first wife. Simon is a dreamer and always idealized his father, who did not wish to know him. After the Prague Spring, a time of increased political and artistic freedom, Simon joins a dissident group and regains contact with Tomas in a failed attempt to win approval. Simon later turns to Christianity, and organizes the funeral of Tomas and Tereza after their deaths.
Tereza'a mother was considered an incredible beauty in her youth. Doomed to a frustrating marriage by her pregnancy with Tereza, and then consigned to continual disappointments in her romantic life, Tereza's mother renounces youth and beauty for a harsh, shameless vulgarity Tereza cannot stand. Tereza's relationship with her mother borders on hatred.
Franz's wife. A Geneva socialite. A vulgar and pretentious woman, she forced Franz to marry her by threatening suicide. She calmly allows Franz to move out but does not grant him a divorce, and after his death reclaims his body.
Franz's mistress after Sabina leaves him. The student loves Franz simply and naturally, and with her he finds true happiness. She is never able to marry Franz or claim any rights after his death.
The stranger with whom Tereza has an affair. A mysterious character, he saves Tereza from a difficult situation early on, seduces her, then vanishes. Some friends warn her he may have been a police agent gathering potential blackmail material.
Tomas's boss. Important in that he tries to save Tomas's career by encouraging him to sign a denouncement of the article Tomas wrote in which he criticized the Czech Communists. The chief surgeon respects Tomas deeply for his decision not to sign the denouncement, but does not think to resign along with Tomas.
Editor with a big chin
Political dissident and journalist in some way involved with Tomas's original paper criticizing the Czech Communists. This editor is also a friend of Tomas's son, Simon. Simon and the editor with the big chin attempt to convince Tomas to join the ranks of dissidents, and, like the police, want him to sign something.