Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories

After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes unnoticed in the dark because she has no hope: her love is submissive, so much a servant’s love, passionate and lying in wait, in a way that the avid yet unconsciously demanding love of a grown woman can never be.” This theme of a child’s submissive love runs throughout Stefan Zweig’s story collection Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories.

In the title story, which kicks off this collection, a woman sends a letter to “R” for his birthday, announcing that her son has died and that his receipt of her letter means that she has died as well. After this announcement, she tells him that she began to love him before he even moved into the apartment building in Vienna where she also lived: She was fascinated by his imported objects and expensive books in different languages. After the first time she saw him, this love grew even more intense. Then, one day, after a chance encounter where he simply smiled at her, she became his “slave.”

She remained his slave, even after her mother and stepfather moved out of the apartment building and into a villa in Innsbruck. In fact, she made trips back to Vienna just to see him. Despite the fact he was usually seen with other women, she still saved herself for him, even rejecting marriage offers from men who were willing to take care of her and her son.

Perhaps it was folly, for then I would be living somewhere safe and quiet now, and my beloved child with me, but—why should I not tell you?—I did not want to tie myself down; I wanted to be free for you at any time. In my inmost heart, the depths of my unconscious nature, my old childhood dream that one day you might yet summon me to you, if only for any hour lived on. And for the possibility of that one hour I rejected all else, so that I would be free to answer your first call. What else had my whole life been since I grew past childhood but waiting, waiting to know your will?

On a couple of occasions, he does summon her, and she submits, but things do not turn out the way she always dreamed they would be.

“A Story Told in Twilight” is another story about submissive love that goes unnoticed in the dark—figuratively and literally. A young man, who is staying with some friends in Scotland, is visited one evening by a vision in white, a mysterious girl whose identity is obscured by the twilight. The girl kisses him, and he falls in love. After she visits him again the next night, he is determined to discover her identity. Based on a single clue, he believes that she is Margot, the oldest of his three cousins. Even though Margot never shows any affection toward him, he wants her to reveal herself as the mysterious girl. When she doesn’t, he begins to feel tormented and causes harm to himself and the one who truly loves him.

No harm is caused in the third story, “The Debt Paid Late”; in fact, that story can be seen as the perfect counterpoint to “Letter from an Unknown Woman.” Like the first story, “The Debt Paid Late” is narrated by a woman writing a letter; however, this time, she is married to a doctor and telling her story to a longtime friend. This story begins at the end of a stressful year of taking care of her daughter’s children, who all had scarlet fever, and arranging her mother-in-law’s funeral. Feeling that she’s worn out, her husband recommends that she spend a few weeks in a sanitarium. Instead, she decides to stay at an inn in an isolated village in the mountains. On her first night there, however, she encounters a former stage actor from her past. This encounter triggers memories from her days as a naïve girl who believed that she was in love with him; as a result, she made herself vulnerable to danger. These memories make her realize that she is obligated to help the actor now that he is in a low point in his life.

Memories of the past are also evoked in the last story, “Forgotten Dreams,” which is the shortest story in the collection. During his visit to a seaside villa, a man reunites with a woman he once loved and reproaches her for marrying “that indolent financier with his mind always bent on making money.” He tries to remind her of the “independent idealist” she once was. However, she tries to convince him—and herself—that no one really understood her as a girl, and her husband has really made her dreams come true.

What makes these stories great is Zweig’s brilliance in capturing the complicated feelings of the characters as they dwell on the lost loves of the past. As they look back, they realize that they didn’t understand the risks that came with submitting themselves to love. While describing these risks, their thoughts and words are sometimes imbued with joy, sometimes with sadness. It’s tricky to keep these emotions balanced, especially within the confines of a short story, yet Zweig manages to do just that. As a result, he is able to shed light on what the unknown woman called the “love of a child that passes unnoticed in the dark.”

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