I love my wife. My wife is dead. ~~Richard Feynman
August 1, 2021 5:51 AM   Subscribe

A love letter. In June of 1945, his wife and high-school sweetheart, Arline, passed away after succumbing to tuberculosis. She was 25-years-old. 16 months later, in October of 1946, Richard wrote his late wife a heartbreaking love letter and sealed it in an envelope. It remained unopened until after his death in 1988.
posted by dancestoblue (16 comments total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
 
"I love you so that you stand in my way of loving anyone else — but I want you to stand there. You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive."
I know this feeling intimately, and he phrased it more simply and powerfully than I could.
posted by myotahapea at 6:21 AM on August 1 [12 favorites]


This, and the whole site really, reminds me of a love letter I could never send because there is no point.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:06 AM on August 1 [2 favorites]


Oh, I love the last line.
posted by sageleaf at 8:14 AM on August 1 [3 favorites]


That was beautiful, thanks for posting.
posted by chaiyai at 10:22 AM on August 1 [1 favorite]


Short-lived duo The Civil Wars wrote a beautiful song based on that letter. It never got properly recorded before their spectacular flame-out, so the rather haunting iphone demo of it is what closes out their last album.
posted by minervous at 10:38 AM on August 1 [4 favorites]


Oh. Oh oh oh. May I have a partner as loving as this someday.
posted by Hermione Granger at 11:58 AM on August 1 [3 favorites]


If you're in the mood for a movie about Richard and Arline's relationship, Infinity, with Matthew Broderick and Patricia Arquette, is a very decent watch.
posted by orange swan at 12:50 PM on August 1 [6 favorites]


It takes discipline to divorce this letter from what I know and dislike about the person who wrote it. But, it's quite moving. That it was unpublished leads me to suspect it was sincere. Thanks!
posted by eotvos at 1:02 PM on August 1 [19 favorites]


It takes discipline to divorce this letter from what I know and dislike about the person who wrote it.

I've read a lot of stuff by and about Feynmann. Arline brought him out of his cocky, self-constructed, asocial shell, and made him a whole person. He was devastated when she died and never recovered; it is as if in losing her he literally lost part of himself. His crass and frankly predatory behaviour after her death probably reflects what he would have become, had he not met her, but this letter shows him as he was, and how he might have been.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:54 PM on August 1 [11 favorites]


It is kind of voyeuristic reading his unopened letter after his death, but a very nice letter.
posted by AugustWest at 5:49 PM on August 1 [1 favorite]


There is a passage from his autobiography, about how he was was working on the bomb when Arlene died and he just kept working.
And then a few weeks later (months?) Passed in front of a shop, saw a dress that Arlene would have liked, grief caught up with him, and he completely broke down.
posted by thegirlwiththehat at 10:59 PM on August 1 [9 favorites]


> His crass and frankly predatory behaviour after her death probably reflects what he would have become, had he not met her, but this letter shows him as he was, and how he might have been.

Yeah that's not exactly a redeeming quality, that the only way to stop him being a sexual predator and sexist asshole would be the unpaid, uncredited, unacknowledged emotional labor of his dead wife. And even that's not a given. Plenty of men are capable of tender feelings for spouses when they are young who nevertheless have done the exact things Feynman did by middle age.
posted by MiraK at 2:29 PM on August 2 [1 favorite]


My uncle studied with him at caltech in the 50s and told me that Feynman did treat his female students with respect at the time.
posted by brujita at 11:29 PM on August 2


I don't know how long the period of his life that I characterised as “predatory” lasted, but I should explain that although Arline was his childhood sweetheart, his married life with her was short: they married in 1942 (against his parents' wishes) when she was already dying of tuberculosis, immediately after he received his PhD; she practically went from the ceremony to a sanitarium, and died in 1945. During that period he cared for her as well as he was able, despite having been drafted into the Manhattan Project: he had her moved to an institution close enough for visits when he had leave, and their relationship was as emotionally and physically close as it might have been, given the circumstances. During this tremendously challenging time he was the best of husbands, and I don't believe he can be charged with exploiting his wife's emotional labour. Things might have changed if she had recovered, of course, but that's a counterfactual.

I believe Feynmann was profoundly traumatised by Arline's decline and death, as well as the sudden and nearly-contemporaneous shift to civilian life after the intense environment of the Manhattan project. The events he recounts after this – aimlessness, a post abroad, a brush with alcoholism, and so forth – were certainly very different to his earlier life – but he hadn't really experienced a normal adult life, having gone from college to marriage and a war, so who knows. Be that as it may, his love and care for her was deep and sincere, and he carried it with him for years, perhaps the rest of his life.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:37 AM on August 3 [5 favorites]


> I don't believe he can be charged with exploiting his wife's emotional labour

No, of course this isn't something he can be "charged" with! It's also not "exploitation" when his wife performed emotional labor that he reciprocated. That's how marriage is supposed to work.

But YOU said the only thing that kept Feynman good was his wife's influence. You said it like it was somehow an endearing quality in this story. Like we were supposed to go "awwww".

It made me shudder, though.

I fail to see what's endearing about a predator who is only kept in check by their wife's influence and when the wife dies, poof, the predator is no longer held at bay. It's creepy as fuck to romanticize this arrangement.
posted by MiraK at 4:58 AM on August 3


That's certainly not what I meant, but perhaps you should do your own reading on him as I have evidently misled you. My apologies.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:36 AM on August 3 [3 favorites]


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