Letter from an Unknown Woman  – ★★★★★
The opposite of love is not hatred, it’s indifference. This novella by an Austrian author, which was adapted into a major film of 1948 directed by Max Ophüls and starring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan, tells the story of a man who receives a strange letter one morning penned by one unknown-to-him woman. What this woman tells him is something much more than a mere confession. It is a soul-searching, gut-wrenching effort at personal liberation, a last cry to be finally understood in life and one fearful culmination of a life lived with one endless hope, a fruitless succession of attempts at happiness and one final tragic resignation. R. is a handsome man and a celebrated novelist who always had a lot of affection from women. The unknown woman is a dreamy and impressionable person from a much more modest family. What ties them together? From his point of view: three, very brief life episodes which can be counted by mere hours and which he forgot the moment they happened. From her point of view: absolutely everything, including three most important moments in her life, her whole world-view and the very point of her existence. Stefan Zweig wrote a powerful, sincere and moving account of one unrequited love and close examination of a person on the very fringes of another person’s life always looking in, hoping in vain to become a full-time participant.
“You ought to know all about my life. It has always belonged to you and you knew nothing about it”. Such are the words in the letter penned by one unknown woman to R., which is full of pain and anguish mixed with feelings of love and tenderness. She recounts to him the time when she was only thirteen and spying on the work in progress – a handsome bachelor and a novelist, only twenty-five years old, was moving next door to her and her family. That handsome bachelor was him, R. She details to him the growth of her obsessive love for him when he was still a mere stranger to her, and she to him – a non-existent person. By then, they met only once on a staircase. As years passed, they met twice more, but the woman’s affection was hardly ever returned.
There is much in the book on the psychology of obsessive love that borders something truly frightening. People obsessed with others may have “a tunnel vision”, and all their actions may be dictated by their unreachable “significant others”. To the unknown woman, R. has always been her greatest joy and her greatest torment. The unknown woman describes him as “supernatural awe”, “a mystery” and “an alluring enigma” [Zweig, 1922: 221]. She tells him that “her life… truly began only on the day she saw him” [1922: 218]. That all-denying and all-scarifying love held with utmost conviction and belief should never be underestimated. But, the novella is also about how a secret may confine a person, and how one buried, unseen-by-others passion may psychologically isolate a person from others, with these people never then understanding how that person may sacrifice everything for – what the society views – a total stranger.
It is easy to dismiss the story as a foolish melodrama and unrealistic idolisation, but I think Stefan Zweig is just too clever and nuanced a writer for these kinds of assumptions or conclusions. The point here is also that an internal life of individual may be very different from the image they portray. The society, that only sees outward appearances and actions, may never know what was really going on inside an individual, and, thus, their understanding of that person and their actions will always be superficial. A married husband and wife may live together for decades being completely indifferent to each other and even barely registering each other in their thoughts, and another person may love another, so-called “stranger”, so passionately, they may be willing to die for them, and yet, on the surface, the two examples should tell us something entirely different. As Mark Twain wrote in 1907: “What a wee little part of a person’s life are his acts and his words! His real life is lead in his head, and is known to none but himself…His acts and his words are merely the visible thin crust of his world… The mass of him is hidden-it and its volcanic fires that toss and boil, and never rest, night nor day. These are his life, and they are not written, and cannot be written”.
The novella is also psychologically interesting because, from R.’s point of view, it opens an examination of life details missed. “To you who never really knew me” [1922: 217], writes the unknown woman to R. R. did not know the unknown woman because he never really cared to know. In a hectic whirlpool of life, he never stopped and considered the impact his actions or words may have on others, or that these may even seal another’s fate. People only pay full attention to things and people that interest them or mean something to them. They remember vividly events from the past that they care to remember, that meant something to them, or which they found interesting or somehow overwhelming. Thus, the unknown woman remembers everything about R., but he remembers nothing about her.
The story also says something about the position of women at the turn of the century and what little choice they had in life in comparison to men. From the perspective of the twenty-first century, it may be too easy to judge the story’s heroine and the choices she made, but the power of love, devotion and willingness to self-sacrifice can also be taken into account.
Translated from the German, Letter from an Unknown Woman is an intimate, psychologically-intriguing story of obsessive love and self-sacrifice, a vivid portrayal of how much someone can matter to a person and how little that person can matter to another in return.
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