Richard Feynman’s Poignant Letter to His Departed Wife Arline: Watch Actor Oscar Isaac Read It Live Onstage

Media vita in morte sumus, goes the medieval line of poet­ry that lent the Eng­lish Book of Com­mon Prayer its most mem­o­rable expres­sion: “In the midst of life we are in death.” The remain­der of the poem extrap­o­lates a the­ol­o­gy from this obser­va­tion, some­thing one can only take on faith. But what­ev­er way we dress up the mys­tery of death, it remains ever-present and inevitable. Yet we might think of the mot­to as a palin­drome: In the midst of death, we are in life. The dead remain with us, for as long as we live and remem­ber them. This is also a mys­tery.

Even the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cists must con­front the pres­ence of the depart­ed, and few scientists—few writers—have done so with as much poignan­cy, direct­ness, elo­quence, and humor as Richard Feyn­man, in a let­ter to his wife Arline writ­ten over a year after she died of tuber­cu­lo­sis at age 25. Feyn­man, him­self only 28 years old at the time, sealed the let­ter, writ­ten in 1946, until his own death in 1988. “Please excuse my not mail­ing this,” he wrote with bit­ter humor in the post­script, “but I don’t know your new address.” Even in the midst of his pro­found grief, Feynman’s wit sparkles. It is not a per­for­mance for us, his posthu­mous read­ers. It is sim­ply the way he had always written—in let­ter after let­ter—to Arline.

In the video above, Oscar Isaac, who has embod­ied many a wise­crack­ing roman­tic, gives voice to the long­ing and pain of Feynman’s let­ter, in which the physi­cist con­fess­es, “I thought there was no sense to writ­ing.” Some­how, he could not help but do so, end­ing with stark­ly ambiva­lent truths he was unable to rec­on­cile with what he col­lo­qui­al­ly calls his “real­is­tic” nature: “You only are left to me. You are real.… I love my wife. My wife is dead.” Read the full let­ter below, via Let­ters of Note. For more from their Let­ters Live series, see Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch read Kurt Vonnegut’s let­ter to the school that banned his nov­el Slaugh­ter­house Five.

Octo­ber 17, 1946


I adore you, sweet­heart.

I know how much you like to hear that — but I don’t only write it because you like it — I write it because it makes me warm all over inside to write it to you.

It is such a ter­ri­bly long time since I last wrote to you — almost two years but I know you’ll excuse me because you under­stand how I am, stub­born and real­is­tic; and I thought there was no sense to writ­ing.

But now I know my dar­ling wife that it is right to do what I have delayed in doing, and that I have done so much in the past. I want to tell you I love you. I want to love you. I always will love you.

I find it hard to under­stand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead — but I still want to com­fort and take care of you — and I want you to love me and care for me. I want to have prob­lems to dis­cuss with you — I want to do lit­tle projects with you. I nev­er thought until just now that we can do that. What should we do. We start­ed to learn to make clothes togeth­er — or learn Chi­nese — or get­ting a movie pro­jec­tor. Can’t I do some­thing now? No. I am alone with­out you and you were the “idea-woman” and gen­er­al insti­ga­tor of all our wild adven­tures.

When you were sick you wor­ried because you could not give me some­thing that you want­ed to and thought I need­ed. You needn’t have wor­ried. Just as I told you then there was no real need because I loved you in so many ways so much. And now it is clear­ly even more true — you can give me noth­ing now yet 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 you will assure me that I am fool­ish and that you want me to have full hap­pi­ness and don’t want to be in my way. I’ll bet you are sur­prised that I don’t even have a girl­friend (except you, sweet­heart) after two years. But you can’t help it, dar­ling, nor can I — I don’t under­stand it, for I have met many girls and very nice ones and I don’t want to remain alone — but in two or three meet­ings they all seem ash­es.

You only are left to me. You are real.

My dar­ling wife, I do adore you.

I love my wife. My wife is dead.


PS Please excuse my not mail­ing this — but I don’t know your new address

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads Kurt Vonnegut’s Incensed Let­ter to the High School That Burned Slaugh­ter­house-Five

‘The Char­ac­ter of Phys­i­cal Law’: Richard Feynman’s Leg­endary Course Pre­sent­ed at Cor­nell, 1964

Richard Feyn­man Cre­ates a Sim­ple Method for Telling Sci­ence From Pseu­do­science (1966)


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  • emmett walz says:

    Thank god, I read Feny­man’s let­ter pri­or to watch­ing, and lis­ten­ing to Mr. Issac do his utmost to “trans­late” A PROFOUNDLY INTIMATE WRITTEN CORRESPONDENCE for a live audi­ence who, it appears, Mr. Isaac thought was per­haps, not yet flu­ent with the Eng­lish lan­guage, and there­fore required a “REALISTIC, and CONVERSATIONAL” tone to make Feny­man’s words com­pre­hen­si­ble to his lis­ten­ers. There is no degree of com­mit­ment to the prin­ci­ples of verisimil­i­tude (the appear­ance of being true, real, or “life­like”), which can tran­scend (nor improve upon) the inher­ent val­ue of lan­guage (the words them­selves, for gods sake), when a read­er, OR LISTENER is indeed, famil­iar with the lan­guage. THE WORDS IN MR FEYNMAN’S LETTER SPEAK PERFECTLY WELL, AND MOST EMOTIONALLY COMPELLING, WITHOUT ANY ADDED EMOTIONALLY AROUSING “INTENTIONS, LIFE HISTORY, PSYCHOLOGY”, ETC., IMAGINED, BY THE BEST TRAINED STUDENT OF THE ACTORS STUDIO! In addi­tion, a let­ter is not a dra­mat­ic script. A pub­lic read­ing of a let­ter IS NOT a the­atri­cal event. Not an imag­ined, and staged reen­act­ment. When read, aloud, a let­ter’s great pow­er (if it has any, at all) lies in the very words, and their mean­ings, them­selves, free of any out­side spec­u­la­tive inter­pre­ta­tion, added by a fourth “lis­ten­er” (an actor). It needs no actor, as such. Only a good ora­tor. One who speaks the words clear­ly, and loud­ly enough to be heard, and with­out hes­i­ta­tion, nor oth­er defi­cien­cies of flu­id­i­ty. And in a tone suit­able to the uni­ver­sal­ly rec­og­nized “weight­i­ness”, or per­haps, light­ness of the let­ter writer’s own inten­tion, or mood, when writ­ing the let­ter. This inten­tion, or mood WILL BE INHERENT IN THE WORDS, AND IN THE THE EXISTENTIAL CONTEXT OF THE LETTER BEING WRITTEN (a hus­band writ­ing his wife, now deceased) . If not, the great­est actor in the world will not be able to revive it from its inher­ent degree of mor­bid­i­ty. In the end, this audi­ence should ask itself what com­pels them to cheer, and enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly applaud a “let­ter read­er”, par­tic­u­lar­ly if they have been ren­dered emo­tion­al­ly “sub­dued”, reflec­tive, seri­ous, per­haps rev­er­en­tial of anoth­er’s capac­i­ty for roman­tic ado­ra­tion, such as is expressed so extra­or­di­nar­i­ly (and sim­ply) in Richard Feyn­man’s words to his Beloved. It appears to me, the “per­former” in the piece has failed mis­er­ably to “mere­ly” bring a mes­sage of pos­si­bil­i­ty to those who have not yet rec­og­nized such a pos­si­bil­i­ty. Their response appears to me to have clear­ly, fell short of his oppor­tu­ni­ty!

  • Jim says:

    I lost my wife. I loved her as dear­ly. I adore Rich Fey­man. I can relate what he was writ­ing. Such a let­ter is best read, qui­et­ly. No actor can tru­ly do it jus­tice by read­ing it aloud.

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