Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Post-Office Girl

What stands out most to me about Stefan Zweig's novel from the 1930s, The Post-Office Girl, is rage. The novel starts off calmly and meticulously, however -- extremely so, with careful and precise descriptions of the Austrian post office where the main character Christine has worked for many years. Every item has its proper place and every item, down to every pencil and every sheet of paper, has been accounted for. The governmental bureaucracy knows everything about this place and controls everything. Stuck in the post office for the foreseeable future, Christine feels like an old woman with nothing to look forward to in her life. The tragedy is that she is only 28.

Into this stultifying atmosphere comes a surprise telegram, and it is one that will transform Christine beyond all recognition. It is from her aunt who wants Christine to join her at a posh Swiss hotel for a two-week vacation. Christine is initially reluctant -- what's the point? she thinks -- but she goes and what she sees there is a revelation. She has known she is poor -- she has spent her life barely scraping by trying to support herself and her sick mother -- but she realizes it now in a visceral way. She sees so much money so carelessly spent, and she realizes that just the tiniest fraction of the money swirling around her would have set herself and her mother up comfortably for the rest of their lives. Quickly, she's caught up in the social whirl, enjoying the attention brought by her youth and beauty, augmented by the fashionable clothes her aunt buys her.

She has become a new being, and it now seems impossible to return to the old life. But, of course, she has to return, and it's here that the anger starts to seep in. Why should Christine slave her life away? Why should some people have so much money and others so little, for no discernable reason except for luck? What's the point of working so hard, day after day, for nothing but the chance to keep doing it until the day she dies?

It's largely the war, World War I, that has caused Christine so much suffering. By the time we meet her in the novel, she has achieved a small amount of stability, but the path that led to this point was very rough. She has had to watch family members die as a direct result of war and has had to push herself to the breaking point just to survive. And now she looks around her and wonders just what the point of it all is.

The second half of the book takes us in new directions that I don't need to describe here, but it follows the ideas the first half introduces to their logical -- and chilling -- conclusions. One of the things I admire about the book is the way Zweig takes Christine through some remarkable transformations, and yet they all feel plausible and right. I was willing to believe everything that happened, even the startling conclusion.

The book asks some difficult questions -- about inequality, about struggle, and about whether the value we place on hard work and honesty really makes any sense in a world where those who deserve happiness often don't get it and those who enjoy wealth and comfort often haven't done anything to earn it. The book also describes the devastation war can bring to people who never wanted war in the first place and who had no say in the matter. There's a lot of anger here, but every bit of it seems justified.


Danielle said...

I was very impressed with this novel as well. He created a very convincing (and bleak)world. I'm not really sad that that aristocratic way of life met it's demise by the end of WWII (well, I suppose it still exists in its own way--but perhaps not quite the same harsh dividing line between rich and poor and how one segment treated the other).

Stefanie said...

"about whether the value we place on hard work and honesty really makes any sense in a world where those who deserve happiness often don't get it and those who enjoy wealth and comfort often haven't done anything to earn it"

Good questions to ask especially in light of the current economy. All those who have worked so hard and one what they should and saved for retirement who now find their savings greatly diminished wondering why someone at a failing company like AIG deserves a million dollar bonus. Who knew how current this novel would be?

Grad said...

Yes. I believe the teeth-gritting anger Zweig describes in this book is very current. I had not thought about that connection before. It's amazing, really, how "today" it is.

Melwyk said...

I found the sense of anger and impotence in the face of social conditions very memorable. He captures perfectly the helpless rage of Christine realizing she is not ever going to have the life she wants.

SFP said...

I wonder if it's these feelings of justified anger and bitterness that lead to most of the upheaval in the world. Certainly Ferdinand's sense of alienation and disaffection was shared by Jesse James and other outlaws following the Civil War in the U.S.

Danielle said...

Or maybe it's the upheaval that leads to the anger and bitterness? I suppose they play off each other.

Rebecca H. said...

Danielle -- I agree that that aspect of WWII was positive and also that inequality still exists in different forms. But maybe, in some places at least, there's more opportunity for changing one's life than exists in Zweig's novel.

Stefanie -- You're so right about parallels to today's world; I wasn't thinking about them as I read, but they are clear to me now. Zweig's characters did nothing to bring suffering on themselves -- in fact, Christine does everything "right."

Grad -- I wasn't thinking about it as I read, but now that Stefanie described it, I see the point. Interesting.

Melanie -- anger and impotence is a good way to put it. They felt there was absolutely nothing they could do -- or even if there were, they didn't have the energy for it. They knew they could only struggle for so long.

SFP -- good point. I'm sure it's a pattern that happens over and over again. And sometimes, maybe, it can lead to social change, although these two characters aren't headed in that direction. They aren't trying to change anything -- they are opting out.

Danielle -- I'm sure you're right that it can work both ways.