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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

Letters to Olga is a moving document of Havel’s imprisonment and, simultaneously, an important philosophical statement, primarily in the final sixteen letters, which were circulated separately and illegally underground.

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The letters are particularly interesting in the light of the circumstances under which they were composed. Havel was subjected to hard labor with set quotas that were deliberately high and thus difficult to fulfill. He was permitted to write home only one four-page letter a week to only one person, so it is perhaps not surprising that he chose to address them to Olga Havel, his wife from 1964 until her death in 1996. Censorship was extremely strict and whimsical. The letters had to adhere to precise specifications: They had to be legible and without corrections, quotation marks, or foreign words. The censors prohibited humor and any thoughts that went beyond what they classified as family matters. The prisoners could not write rough drafts or take notes.

Under such difficult conditions, the weekly letter writing evolved into an anxious guessing game against the arbitrary interpretations of the censors, who ruthlessly confiscated letters that did not fit their specifications. Havel developed a strong dependence on this sole means of intellectual expression permitted to him.

Through her occasional letters, Olga grants him vicarious participation in the cherished life outside the prison. That explains Havel’s recurring insistence that Olga write to him more often, in more detail, and answer his questions and requests—an insistence that occasionally culminates in downright petulance and frustration. Havel persistently inquires about such mundane matters as the upkeep of their weekend retreat, Hrádeek, their Prague apartment, or Olga’s social life.

Naturally, censorship inhibited intimacy and so the letters may be perceived as devoid of true warmth and feeling. Yet Olga’s presence is felt, and Havel’s dependence on her, his earnest adviser and first critic of his work, is evident. When Havel became seriously ill in prison in early 1983, it was his wife who alerted the intellectual community abroad, whose interventions on Havel’s behalf speeded his release from prison before his sentence was terminated.

The final sixteen letters do not constitute a rigorous philosophical treatise, but even so they show Havel’s indebtedness to phenomenological thought and illuminate the tenets of his work. At the center is the image of birth that symbolizes the fundamental condition of humankind, the experience of separation and release, of breaking away: Humanity is cast into an alien world and faces the question of who it is. What essentially characterizes humankind is a boundless primal sense of responsibility for others in a world into which it is cast. All individuals share this isolation in a world from which they cannot escape, and this vulnerability and helplessness cry out for compassion. The misery of others reminds them of their own “thrownness” and isolation in the world. It follows that humankind is not only responsible for others but also obligated to shape the environment, free from scientific or ideological determinism.

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