Letters to Olga Summary
by Vaclav Havel

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Letters to Olga Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 498 words.)