Emails as Love Letters in You’ve Got Mail

“Romantic life adapts to all this technology,” Nora Ephron said.

“It is the way we live, we live this life that is about words and we live it in restaurants and we live it on the phone and we live it on the computer.” I am watching her, Tom Hanks, and Meg Ryan discuss the making of You’ve Got Mail and realize this is the reason why YGM continues to be one of my favorite romantic comedies. I have always placed high importance on words and their meaning (hi, ‘words of affirmation’ love language over here!), and here is a movie, essentially a love-letter in itself, highlighting their importance and place in our lives.

From the love and conversations surrounding books like Pride & Prejudice to how we communicate with one another (do I seize up when I’m confronted, stunned into silence like Meg Ryan? or do I turn into “Mr. Nasty” as Tom Hanks does?) to how what we see when we meet someone in real life doesn’t even scratch the surface of who they really are.

Meg Ryan’s lines describing the anticipation and joy she feels after receiving a great letter is just one of the gorgeously written email passages in the film:

“I turn on my computer. I wait impatiently as it connects. I go online and my breath catches in my chest until I hear three little words: ‘you’ve got mail.’ I hear nothing, not even a sound on the streets of New York. Just the beating of my own heart. I have mail… from you.”

Who would imagine, now, that a movie could be centered around AOL? You’ve Got Mail uses the burgeoning new technology of the “Internet” with a capital I, as a device to allow the audience to see both the character’s rich inner lives and how they conflict with their outward appearances, relationships, and behaviors. The story is timeless, strangers who fall in love through letters: first as a Hungarian play, then adapted to the classic Hollywood film The Shop Around the Corner, and eventually the 90’s romantic comedy I adore.

The thing that makes You’ve Got Mail a great adaptation and example of pen-pals is the anticipation of only being able to check if you’ve received a note from a friend when you get home (virtually or not). While falling in love and speaking with strangers via email was a new idea in 1998, it isn’t such a faraway idea now.

Since we carry our emails around in our pocket, the opportunity to chat all day long if we wanted to is constantly at our fingertips. Dating someone you met online isn’t as taboo now as it was then.

Ephron uses voiceover of their emails as exposition; their letters to one another allow them to narrate their own love story as it unfolds. Tom Hanks’ character is humanized through his comedic “hot takes” on Starbucks orders offering a sense-of-self and the nighttime dust outside of H&H Bagels. He’s rich, he’s the son of Fox & Sons and yet he doesn’t openly reveal his sensitive side or internal thoughts to anyone. Hanks always has the upper hand in the film, which is imperfect, given when he first meets Kathleen Kelly she isn’t aware that he is the competitor essentially putting her shop in danger of closing.

Standing outside of the coffee shop, when Hanks realizes Ryan is Shopgirl, the woman he’s been writing and is scheduled to meet… he doesn’t reveal that he is NY142. This is where Hanks’ character catches up with what the viewers have known all along. He realizes that his past cruelty to Kathleen Kelly and the hurt he read Shopgirl describe were two sides of the same coin. Similarly, he hears about the encounter at the coffee shop later, via email, and apologizes saying, “You were expecting to see someone you trusted and met the enemy instead.

The internet plays a daily and, for better or worse, integral role in our lives. During the first few months of the coronavirus quarantine, I found myself reading article after article about young singles having to get to know one another over the internet and how that maybe wasn’t such a bad thing after all. Since it is 2020 and not 1998, we are able to video-chat from a distance, but with texting and email, the sentiment is the same: we are forced to get to know one another through written words.

It is through writing to one another both characters are able to process their emotions about events in their lives and feel heard and supported by the other. The romantic relationships they begin the film with are surface level and convenient; they lack the emotional intimacy that the freedom of typing to a stranger gives Hanks and Ryan. Even though they don’t “know each other” in person, they build a strong foundation before they “officially” meet.

Briefly, we get a glimpse into the possibility of a more instant-exchange when they IM for the first time. We see them type back and forth, but we also see them think about what they are saying, edit, and respond to the other’s words. It becomes clear that their chemistry has potential.

The hook of the movie is the anonymity of it. Have you already met the love of your life and you don’t know it? As the trailer announces, “In life, they’re at odds. Online, they’re in love.” There’s possibility everywhere.

In Ephron’s words, You’ve Got Mail is “a little cyberspace, a little reality, a little magic.” A perfectly wonderful combination, if you ask me.

Originally published at on August 1, 2020. ❤

Writer (she/her) of the foodish, bookish, & feminist. Author of Bright Blue (poetry) Dancing Girl Press / Website: / Twitter: @b___ski

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