Beware of Pity
by Stefan Zweig
"One, the weak and sentimental kind, which is really no more than the heart's impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another's unhappiness, that pity which is not compassion, but only an instinctive desire to fortify one's own soul against the sufferings of another; and the other, the only kind that counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond." (p 192)
This is a curious novel from the pen of Stefan Zweig who tells the story of a young Austrian cavalry officer, Anton Hofmiller, who befriends a local millionaire, Kekesfalva, and his family, but in particular the old man's crippled daughter, Edith, with terrible consequences. Stefan Zweig was a prolific biographer, short story writer, and is noted today mainly for his autobiography, The World of Yesterday.
Before the First World War, Anton Hofmiller, a young Austrian officer from a modest background, finds himself stationed in a town where he knows few people. He obtains an invitation to the home of the richest local family and, at the end of the evening, realizes he has not spent time with their attractive daughter, Edith. He invites her to dance, but realizes – to everyone’s horror – that she is sitting in a wheelchair and can’t even stand. This, he believes, is the worst faux pas imaginable, and he flees. But he is given another chance, which he eagerly accepts. To be nice he starts spending more and more time with the family, focusing on Edith, keeping her company – keeping himself company too. The relationship between them seems almost balanced at first. She’s sweet, if a bit over-eager for his attention. It is the father, though, who compels Hofmiller to involve himself more, to help find treatment for her condition, to lie to her about its effectiveness, to let her believe she has a chance of recovery. It’s all, of course, in the name of keeping her happy. Hofmiller’s eagerness to please, Edith’s father’s eagerness to please – beyond what is practical or real – subtly becomes a ticking bomb of anxiety. Where it naturally leads is to Hofmiller’s proposal of marriage. A good soldier, he will do everything he can but the denouement is devastating for Edith and Hofmiller goes off to war.
The message of the book is not only the ostensible one – that pity is an emotion that can cause great ruin – but also that we must not judge things by appearances. This is a lesson that the narrator has learned and the reader can appreciate from his experience reading this magnificent novel.
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