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Letter from an Unknown Woman by Stefan Zweig

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Book review: Letter From An Unknown Woman


Letter from An Unknown Woman, written by Stefan Zweig, reveals a fantastic story of an unknown woman’s desperate secret obsession with a writer.

The woman first met the writer, her new neighbor, when she was 13 and fell in love with him at the first sight. However, she was forced to moved away from her old home by some family issue, but she never ceased loving him full-heartedly. Years later when she managed to return to the neighborhood in order to work near him, she finally got a chance to be with him for 3 nights, during which she conceived and borne a baby later. The man made excuses to get rid of the woman and soon forgot her. The woman wanted to provide her son a cheerful life, and since she didn’t have a well-paid job, she sold herself, becoming mistress of many rich men. Then, one day at a dancing hall, the woman encountered the writer again. He was attracted by the woman and bought her for a night, but again, he failed the woman’s strong wish to be recognized. After having lost her precious son, the woman eventually died with still the strong affection for the writer.

This “unknown woman” indeed aroused my great interest in her mindset. Actually, I suspect that she may possess some mental illness, making her behavior so hard to be analyzed. In her early stage of obsession, it is possible to understand a teenage girl’s affection for a next-door handsome young man; I even thought it is quite cute of a girl falling love with an adult within just one look. But then things were getting weird. More than one time the woman defined her life as “entirely centered in you”. She gave up her identity as an individual and chose to simply live for him and him only: she fled away from her stable family life just to live closer to him (who didn’t even know her name); she made a living as a prostitute to provide for his son in spite of the fact that there are numbers of rich men chasing after her. What she has done is beyond the normal understanding of “love”. And the strange but somehow moving part is that her love is so selfless and pure, that she didn’t at all blame the man for forgetting her time after time; instead, she was even thankful towards the man after all she had been through.

In my eyes, I think there are two factors that account for this amazing love story. The first is that she regarded the man as supremely right: actually, she knew clearly what he was like, but she simply accepted all his defects as they were. My opinion might be extreme but I do believe she must have very low self-esteem as she said, “I love you just as you are, ardent and forgetful, generous and unfaithful”, her values were not built upon the education she received nor what her parents taught her; instead, whatever the man does is right. And in that way her morals were somehow twisted. He is the absolute god in her world. And the second factor is that, it remains an unsolved question whether or not she is really in love with the man; I think there is a possibility that she was just in love with the perfect illusion she built up by herself. Anyway, this is just my opinion when I am trying to be a rational reader, but I don’t deny the chance that her love is real, and this belief will make the story a truly romantic one.

The image of the man is also very attractive and he is definitely an interesting character that worth analyzing. He made his debut as “two people rolled into one”: “you are an ardent, lighthearted youth devoted to sport and adventure; and at the same time, in your art, a deeply read and cultured man, grave, and with a keen sense of responsibility.” I have to admit that I was attracted by the first impression: a 25-year-old man who boyishly ran upstairs two steps at a time yet had a great knowledge of theatre and books, a mixture of childishness and erudition. And the best part is that this character is entirely sculptured through the telling of the woman in a frank but lovingly tone. If I were put to view this character from an objective perspective, I have to say that he is a playboy, who lives just for fun and never really cares about others’ feelings; but when I see him from the woman’s eyes, an extremely complex but charming figure emerged- “you like to give yourself freely to all the world but not to make any sacrifice.” “the breath of freedom is the breath of life to you.”-this man is not a playboy at all! He is just a free little child stuck in an adult’s body who is curious about the world and is eager to explore every part of it without being dragged by any burden. It is amazing for me to realize how my judgement can differ when at different position.



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