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.