Christine Hoflehner is the administrator of a tiny Austrian village post office in the 1920s. Only 28 years old, she lives with her sickly mother, attempting to provide for two people on her meager salary. Her life is confined to her remote village, and varies little from day-to-day. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, her aunt and uncle invite her to join them on holiday. Claire (the aunt) left Austria as a young woman, married a successful American business man, and has a lifestyle beyond Christine’s imagination. Christine travels by train to Switzerland; her first view of the Alps is the beginning of her transformation:
She’s been living as though all this didn’t exist, never saw it, hardly cared to; like a fool she dozed off in this tiny little room … just a night away, a day away from this infinitude, these manifold immensities! Indifferent and without desires before, now she begins to realize what she’s been missing. This contact with the overpowering is her first encounter with travel’s disconcerting ability to strip the hard shell of habit from the heart, leaving only the bare, fertile kernel. (p. 34)
On arrival at the Swiss resort, Christine feels uncomfortable and out-of-place with all the wealthy patrons. The status-conscious Claire whisks Christine away to a beauty salon, followed by a shopping spree, and Christine blossoms under the attention. She begins to assimilate into the resort community, passing as a wealthy socialite and becoming the center of attention both with her contemporaries and some of the older guests.
And then suddenly it all comes to an end, and Christine returns to her village and her monotonous post office job. Experience with a life of luxury makes living without all the more difficult. After a few weeks, feeling stifled, she traveled to Vienna on her day off:
She didn’t know why she was going there, had no clear idea what she wanted, other than to get away, away from the village, from her work, from herself, from the person she was condemned to be. She just wanted to feel the wheels turning beneath her again, see lights, see different people, ones with more intelligence and style, … to be a different person, not the same old one. (p. 158)
In Vienna she meets Ferdinand, a young man of the same age bearing horrible emotional scars from the war. Together they show the impact of the war on everyday men and women. Christine lost loved ones in the war and lived with years of economic hardship. Ferdinand saw the war first-hand; afterward he was unable to afford education, and was equally unable to find work. They bond out of a shared sense of desperation, and craft a daring, last-ditch attempt to improve their circumstances.
Stefan Zweig paints a vivid portrait of Austria following World War I: profound loss, widespread poverty, and an overall sense of hopelessness and desperation. Zweig himself left his native country during the rise of Nazism, and, along with his wife, committed suicide. Published posthumously, The Post-Office Girl offers insight to the motives leading to Zweig’s last act.