Critical interpretation of Tereza’s Nightmares

Tereza had a very problematic childhood. She has a very significant relationship with her body and that relationship has something to do with her past.

The philosophy of life of both Tereza’s mother and Tereza are totally poles apart. The value system that Tereza’s mom upholds, Tereza cannot conform to that value system. Tereza’s mother celebrates her body because Tereza’s grandfather used to compare her daughter’s body to Madonna, paintings, and sculptures. She is considered to be the emblem of beauty.

So, from her childhood, her psyche was inculcated by the concept of beauty. She was obsessed with her body and when she started getting older, it turned out to be a source of trauma for her mother because she started losing her physical charm. She has got a number of suitors but her married life was dearly problematic since she could not hold one single husband. Besides, Tereza was the result of a failed abortion, which she considered as a defect of her life. So, she does not like Tereza either. As a result, when she started getting older she could not really stand Tereza’s covering her body.

Tereza has got a very sacred position about her body, but her mother’s position regarding body was entirely opposite. For her, body is something to be celebrated and enjoyed. Tereza finds her mother as philander which makes her losing respect for the aspect which her mother capitalizes and that is her body. For Tereza, the body has turned out to be something grotesque, something very much unwanted, something dearly vulgar and she essentialized the concept of love with any sort of body attachment. Love has to be there which she did not find in her mother’s case. Rather for her mother, it was not really the love which is significant, it is the body which is everything and her beautiful body which ultimately led her to find other husbands, friends. Even she used to roam around the house remaining naked. So gradually, grudge was growing up inside the Tereza’s mind. Tereza is getting disgusted with such profanation of the body. Moreover, she was abused by her mother and mother’s boyfriends as well, e.g. she was not allowed to lock her washroom door, not allowed to cover her body, etc. On the other hand, Tereza was growing up pretty and her mother was gradually becoming older, which was also unacceptable to her mother. Her mother forcefully vulgarized Tereza’s perception of the body. Such vulgarization of the body has ignited a traumatic idea of body inside Tereza’s mind.

So, there was a crisis between Tereza and her mother. In the future, when she used to look at the mirror, she could feel the reflection of her mother on to her face. All these things made her more protective about her body. Thus, lack of protection in her childhood turned her into an overprotective lady about her body.

Tereza is always afraid of losing the person she loved which is Tomas as she wants to have some love which she did not get in her childhood. So, when she got married to Tomas, a sense of acute protectiveness towards Tomas grew inside her. She considers herself very vulnerable contemplating that any time she might lose her beloved. Also, she encountered the disgusting aspects about the body and so, a sacred value has been generated in her mind about her body. She wants her body to be the only body for Tomas since in her mind, a sacred value is there regarding her body. She never wants her body to be pluralized or vulgarized. As a result, she was haunted by a fear of being a part of the many women of her husband. In her dreams that fear is reconceptualized.

For example: she repeatedly dreamed of cats jumping at her face and digging their claws into her skin. We need not look far for an interpretation: in Czech slang the word cat means a pretty woman. Tereza saw herself threatened by women, all women. All women were potential mistresses for Tomas, and she feared them all.

(Milan Kundera 10)

The fear returns from the unconscious mind to the subconscious mind and in her dream, this fear is reconceptualized as nightmares. Her nightmares are very much symbolic because she sees Tomas as a very aggressive and dominating person. In the nightmares, she is presented as one of the many mistresses of Tomas who commands them to circle the swimming pool remaining naked. She never wants to be naked in front of others and never wants to be one of the mistresses of her beloved since it gives her discomfort and she wanted to be the only wife of Tomas. Tereza narrates her nightmare as

there were about twenty of us. All women. We were naked and had to march around the pool … You kept giving us orders. Shouting at us. We had to sing as we marched, sing and do kneebends. If one of us did a bad kneebend, you would shoot her with a pistol and she would fall dead into the pool … You never took your eyes off us, and the minute we did something wrong, you would shoot. The pool was full of corpses floating just below the surface. And I knew I lacked the strength to do the next kneebend and you were going to shoot me!

(Milan Kundera 12)

She also sees that she was surrounded by dead corpses of women

“where youth and beauty mean nothing, where the world is nothing but a vast concentration camp of bodies, one like the next, with souls invisible”

(Milan Kundera 23)

In the concentration camp, there was no difference among the bodies in Hitler’s eyes, and also, to him those bodies matter, not those departed souls. Likewise, it is very much painful for Tereza to be one of the many other bodies in Tomas’s life as Tereza terrifically recounts that

being in a hearse as big as a furniture van, I was surrounded by dead women. There were so many of them that the back door would not close and several legs dangled out. But I’m not dead! Tereza cried. I can still feel!

(Milan Kundera 11)

Milan Kundera compares with Hitlerian concentration camp where there was no difference between one body to another. 

So, these fears give her an existential crisis and also, transforms into nightmares and those nightmares intensify her existential crisis more.

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