No One Is Alone

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No One Is Alone

Margaret Miller

When examining the similarities between Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and Stefan Zweig's Letter from an Unknown Woman, the themes of the duality of public and private selves, sin, and love emerge. These themes are still present when the time and place of the story is changed. This suggests that these themes are universal and are part of what it is to be a human. By using texts to compare the ways that the themes are expressed, we can examine the ways that society has changed in not only how the characters deal with the themes, but also how the authors express the themes.

In Zweig's Letter from an Unknown Woman, a writer known as 'R' receives "several dozen hastily penned sheets in a feminine hand-writing" addressed "To you, who have never known me." (Zweig, 71) This is similar to The Scarlet Letter, in that the author "found the record of other doings and sufferings of this singular woman" in the Custom-House at which he worked. (Hawthorne, 27) The unknown woman who has written the letter tells 'R' about her lifelong love and devotion to him. She begins by reminiscing about her childhood and when he first moved in next door. She explains that, when she was older, they had had a brief affair and, unbeknownst to him, she had conceived his son. She goes on to explain that she is writing this letter next to their son's deathbed and that she herself is expected to die soon.

In both Letter from an Unknown Woman and The Scarlet Letter, the mother protects the father by withholding knowledge about their child. The unknown woman tells 'R' that she never told him about his son because "it was my pride that I should never be a trouble or a care to you all my life long. I would rather take the whole burden on myself than be a burden to you." (Zweig, 91) She feels that she is able to protect him from the burden of the knowledge of having a son. This is similar to Hester's refusal to say who the father of her daughter is. She replies "would that I might endure his agony, as well as mine!" (Hawthorne, 49) Hester is trying not to protect the father from knowing that the child is his, but from the community knowing the child is his.

Their need to protect the fathers put Hester and the unknown woman in situations which many people would feel compelled to leave. Indeed both are given opportunities to leave, yet both choose to stay. The unknown woman tells 'R' that she had received many proposals of marriage from wealthy admirers. She could have had a "sedate, distinguished, and kind-hearted husband," but instead she decides to "remain free-for ['R']." (Zweig, 96) She doesn't want to take the opportunity to leave because she wants to be sure that if 'R' should ever need her, she would be there. Another reason she never leaves is that she "did not wish to live content away from you; so I buried myself in a gloomy world of self-torment and solitude." (Zweig, 83) Her love for 'R' and her need to be there if he needs her keeps her tied to Vienna, their hometown. In the conclusion of The Scarlet Letter, the reader learns that although Hester and Pearl disappear after Chillingworth's death, years later Hester not only returns, but even continues to wear the scarlet letter. The author suggests Hester returns because "there was a more real life for Hester Prynne, here, in New England, than in that unknown region where Pearl had found a home." (Hawthorne, 165) Hester's need to live where she had known sin, sorrow, and penitence keeps her tied to Salem.

Another similarity is that both texts concern the difference between the public and private selves. The unknown woman writes that when they first met, she was aware that 'R' "led two lives. One of these was known to all, it was the life open to the world; the other was turned away from the world, and was known only to [himself]." (Zweig, 76) She believes that 'R's public self was a foolish and fashionable young man, while his private self was a serious and thoughtful old man. She also believes that she is one of the few people who understand this duality in his personality and even acknowledges it when she declares her love for him and writes, "I love you just as you are, ardent and forgetful, generous and unfaithful." (Zweig, 90) Hester is also aware of the duality of Dimmesdale's personality. Publicly, he is the saintly, pious young minister of Salem and privately, he is Pearl's father and has committed a serious sin. The author writes that "no man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true." (Hawthorne, 137) While Hester is able to protect Dimmesdale by refusing to identify him as the father, she is unable to protect him from his duality.

Before he dies, Dimmesdale attempts to reconcile his private and public selves by admitting to everyone that he is Pearl's father. In this final confession he asks the townspeople, "Stand any here that question God's judgment on a sinner? Behold! Behold a dreadful witness of it!" and reveals "a SCARLET LETTER-the very semblance of that worn by Hester Prynne-imprinted in the flesh" of his chest. (Hawthorne, 161-162) He wants everyone to recognize his private self and, in doing so, recognize his sin. The unknown woman also seeks to be recognized before she dies and so she writes the letter to 'R'. Each she writes about one of her many encounters with 'R' over the years, she mentions that each time he didn't recognize her. She acknowledges this when she writes, "I had to endure what has always been my fate; that you have never recognized me. I must die, unrecognized." (Zweig, 86) By writing the letter, she is attempting to get 'R' to remember her and recognize her.

While there are many similarities between the two texts, there are also many differences, most of which concern differences between the time and place of the stories. However, one major difference stands out: the roles that Hester and the unknown woman play in society. In an effort to give her child an expensive upbringing, the unknown woman turns to what, by puritan and even 21st century standards, could be called a life of sin. She writes to 'R', "I sold myself. I did not become a street-walker, a common prostitute, but I sold myself. My friends, my lovers, were wealthy men." (Zweig, 95) Her original sinful act of having a child out of wedlock led her to commit many more sins. This is in stark contrast to Hester. Although the original sin remains the same, Hester became a pillar of virtue in the community. The author writes that "in the lapse of the toilsome, thoughtful, and self-devoted years that made up Hester's life, the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world's scorn and bitterness." (Hawthorne, 165) Hester does not turn to a life of sin to support her child and, through her virtuous behavior, is even able to change the negative stigma associated with her original sinful act. This difference may be due to the different societies that the women are part of. In 20th century Vienna, while her actions may be looked down upon, the unknown woman is not punished for either her original sin or the sins that follow. Hester has been punished and isolated from the puritan community because she committed adultery. She does not turn to a life of sin because she believes what she did was wrong and knows that she will probably be killed if she sinned again.

The similarities between The Scarlet Letter and Letter from an Unknown Woman highlight the universal themes of love and what women do in the name of it, sin and its aftermath, and the differences between our public and private selves. This suggests that, although we live in different times and in different places, there is something that ties all of humankind together. Zweig's unknown woman writes that "there is nothing more terrible than to be alone among human beings." (Zweig, 82) If we are all connected by these universal themes, can any of us really be alone? Is it not reassuring that at some other time, in some other place, someone went through what you are going through? Even if you are physically alone, someone has/is/will be going through the same experiences with you. So, in the words of Hester, "Thou shalt not go alone!" (Hawthorne, 128)

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