Review: Letter from an Unknown Woman by Stefan Zweig

Letter from an Unknown Woman [1922]★★★★★

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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19 thoughts on “Review: Letter from an Unknown Woman by Stefan Zweig

  1. In real life, I’ve known several people who loved someone else but for whatever reason they did not stay in the permanent/committed relationship. Life moved on, but feelings did not change. It happens much more often than I realized.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. It sounds like this also offers a perspective on how we feel about famous people, especially actors. Occastionally even when I’ve seen a small college production I’ll meet one of the student actors in a hallway or library and feel like I’ve spent two hours with them, but they didn’t share that experience.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Oh, definitely! When viewing someone on stage there is feeling of “we’re getting to know them” and also being impressed by their talent, but, of course, the audience is large and actors can’t have this feeling about individual audience members.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. “An internal life of individual may be very different from the image they portray.” To me this gets at the heart of why we need fiction and other narrative art. It attempts to get at that mystery of the internal life, to free us from the tyranny of external impressions. This sounds like a very interesting fictional exploration of that very boundary between two people, how we meet and miss one another, not always in such dramatic or obsessive ways, but pointing up an element that comes into all relationships.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. A very good, thoughtful, insightful post, Diana. I admire Stefan Zweig’s writing. Years ago, I read his “Balzac” in translation, a very good book; and I quote from Zweig in a couple of my own blog posts:

    https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/09/24/black-coffee/

    https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/10/11/balzac-on-memory/

    Zweig also wrote a book on Montaigne, which I have but have not yer read. Montaigne is of great interest to me.

    The circumstances of Zweig’s death and the events preceding it are tragic.

    The 1948 film made a big impression on me. In the film, they made the protagonist, Stefan Brand, into a concert pianist. He continually plays Liszt’s “Un Suspiro,” which becomes a haunting sort of leitmotif in the film.

    Great post. Very interesting.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, and for sharing your posts! I am not familiar with Zweig’s other writings, apart from some of his short fiction stories and this novella, I should check them out, thanks for these recommendations.

      I did watch the film and enjoyed it. I thought it was clever the way they thought-up the duel and, as you say, made the character a concert pianist, instead of a famous writer. They made the novella much more impactful and, of course, cinematic.

      Like

  5. As with you, the only story by Zweig I’ve previously read was Chess but this sounds intriguing and as relevant psychologically now as then, if not more so. Other than that I can’t think of anything to add to your review and the comments here, except to say I shall look out for this! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Great review! This sounds like such an interesting story to look at psychologically, and one that must have stood the test of time very well- with the internet now I think it is shockingly common to find one-sided relationships where followers may learn a lot about someone’s life through what they share online and can grow attached (romantically or otherwise), while in turn they may themselves go completely unnoticed. It must be painful, though I can’t really see any way around it in the modern world without removing art, celebrity, and the internet altogether, which would take away a lot of very beneficial connections and expressions, as well. A very interesting topic to consider.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you and interesting thoughts! I agree, the book is indeed very topical in that sense since we are living in the world where the cult of the celebrity is pretty much in everyone’s faces, especially a new type of celebrity that can go from an ordinary person with no talent to an unexpected star overnight through some unusual Instagram photos, YouTube video, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Exactly! We have “celebrities” across so many different platforms now, and it’s increasingly easy to access the lives and thoughts of people that would a few decades ago have been almost completely out of reach for the average person, which I think makes these one-sided relationships a much more “ordinary” occurrence. I’d probably consider reading this book for that reason moreso than it’s historical context!
        In any case, I very much appreciated your thoughtful review on the topic. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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