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Book Review: Fear by Stefan Zweig

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This brief 106 page novella will capture your sense of irrational Fear within the first two pages. The build up of guilt is relentless. It pounds and pounds at your conscience until you can find no way to escape Irene’s infidelity to a loving husband and her children except for the dastardly plan she has conjured up for herself — suicide.

Irene has become bored with her humdrum life. She does not raise her children; nursemaids and servants fulfill that marital obligation. She does not complete house chores; servants do that for her. She finds release from her utter boredom by sexual involvement with a younger man who thrills her — drills her might be more appropriate.

Irene has chosen to sidestep her marriage vow of remaining faithful to one man, her lawyer husband, and risks all for a few minutes, moments, perhaps only seconds of sexual release she obtains from a young up-and-coming pianist. Who will know — what difference will it make — reasons Irene in her daily tedious boredom.

By happenstance upon leaving her younger physically attractive lover's apartment, Irene is seen by a woman witness, whose single simple sentence, “Oh, I catch you here for once, do I?” sends Irene on a collision course with her own conscience and ultimately her own death wish. Irene has been recognized as unfaithful to her husband and her children who truly love her.

The witness asks for money or she will spill all to Irene’s husband and to any other interested parties. Of course, Irene’s marital infidelity would ruin the career of her lawyer husband who has sworn to uphold truth and justice. It would forever damage the love bond between her and her children, her relatives and friends, everyone who views Irene as a wealthy, happily-married woman.

Irene’s witness ups the ante as the story moves frenetically onward. She demands increasing amounts or lucre to remain silent. Author Zweig allows the reader inside Irene’s head to view the ever-increasing naked Fear that Irene experiences as she attempts to reason out some way of dealing with her blackmailed predicament.

As a reader, you cannot help but feel this desperation, this irrational Fear, this obsessive guilt Irene experiences. Ultimately, the blackmailer arrives at Irene’s home and demands her costly engagement ring as payment for her silence. When Irene’s loving husband arrives home, she makes a bland excuse for the blackmailer’s presence in their home. To avoid a showdown, Irene pulls off her treasured engagement ring and gives it away.

What happens to Irene fraught with monumental guilt, an obsession that begins on page 12 of Fear and finally comes to a possible suicidal climax on page 104, two pages before the end of the novella, is what keeps you, the reader, gulping down the pages. You must find out what happens to this woman who shares with you her unspeakable guilt, a woman who sees ending her life as the only way to stop her mental torture.

Fear is a very short read. It is reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart." It intrigues you mentally. It catches you morally. It obsesses you spiritually. I would recommend it for any reader because each of us has had some experience in our lives we are ashamed of — some experience we keep hidden within our subconscious mind, glad no one knows about. Fear can serve as a liberator for your own pent-up hidden transgressions, or might even keep you from committing them.

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