Nabokov’s story is written in the form of a letter from an unnamed narrator to V., his Russian expatriate friend living as a novelist in the United States. The narrator begins by telling V. that he has arrived in America. While in New York City, he fortuitously met a mutual friend of theirs (Gleb Alexandrovich Gekko), who provided V.’s address.
After fondly recalling their days as young, eager poets, the narrator begins telling the story of his doomed marriage—the real subject of his letter. He was married “a few weeks before the gentle Germans roared into Paris,” which occurred in 1940. However, the narrator claims that he is “positive” that his wife “never existed.” Her name is “the name of an illusion” and he is therefore able to speak of her with “as much detachment” as he would a character in a story. When he first met her, he felt no great emotions, but one night she said something “quaint” on a walk and he kissed her on the hair. Despite his recollection of this scene, she remains “nebulous” to him; he tells V. that he has great difficulty trying to imagine her face. She was younger than the narrator and the reader learns that she was initially attracted to his verse, although the narrator assumes that once she had penetrated the mysteries of his poetry, she found herself stuck with “a stranger’s unlovable face”—his own.
The narrator reveals he had been planning to follow V.’s lead and move to the United States. His wife informs him that she has an uncle living in New York City. The couple writes a “passionate” letter that receives no reply. Meanwhile, the narrator has received an invitation to come to the United States from a fellow Russian living in Chicago. Although he has done little to secure the papers he needs to leave France, he knows that he has to begin the process, since the Germans have just invaded and he has written in one of his books that “Germany was bound to remain for ever and ever the laughing stock of the world.” Fearing that the German commanders will be shown the book by “some helpful compatriot,” the narrator and his wife begin their journey out of France on a series of “unscheduled trains” bound for “unknown destinations.”
During one of their many railroad rides, his wife begins to sob about a dog they left at their flat. Although the narrator is “struck” by her grief, he is puzzled, since they never owned a dog. When he makes this point, she says that she tried to imagine that they had bought a setter they had previously discussed, although the narrator contends they never discussed buying a setter.
At Faugeres, a stop on the way to Nice, the narrator leaves the train for ten minutes to buy food. When he returns, the train is gone. Several attempts at finding his wife by telephone and telegraph fail, so he decides to continue, hoping to discover that she has continued the journey on her own. A week after his arrival in Nice, a detective informs him that he has located the narrator’s wife. He takes the narrator to a seedy hotel where he says the narrator’s wife is living. When they arrive, the narrator finds that the woman identified by the detective is not, in fact, his wife.
The narrator leaves the hotel and, on the way back to his lodgings, sees his wife standing in a line outside a food store. She tells him that she had returned to Faugeres, where she met a party of refugees and stayed with them, sleeping in a bicycle shop. When she realized that she did not have enough money to reach Nice (since he had both of their tickets), she borrowed some from one of the refugees. She then boarded the wrong train, arrived in a town whose name she had forgotten, and only made it to Nice two days before he found her. However, she later tells him that this story is a lie and that she had spent several days in Montpellier with a man she had met on the train. Stunned, the narrator grills her for information about her adultery as his anger and jealousy increases to unbearable intensity. During these days of interrogation, the narrator and his wife are also trying to secure the necessary papers permitting them to go to the United States—a formidable task.
At some point during this trying time, the narrator breaks down and begins weeping. Inexplicably, his wife then tells him that she did not commit adultery and that her whole story of the man on the train is a lie. Eventually, with great struggle, the narrator believes her. He also obtains the necessary visas allowing them to travel to the United States. After obtaining them at an office, he returns to their flat to find her and all of her things gone. Distraught, the narrator asks a number of acquaintances if they have seen her but no one provides any information. An old woman, Anna Vladimirovna, accuses him of being “a bully and a cad”; the narrator’s wife had apparently told Anna a story about falling in love with a Frenchman and the narrator’s refusal to grant a divorce. Anna also rebukes him for hanging his wife’s dog before leaving Paris, another story told to her by his wife. Frustrated and indignant, the narrator leaves Anna to sail to the United States alone.
During his sea voyage, the narrator meets a doctor on the ship whom he knows from Paris. The doctor tells him that he saw the narrator’s wife in Marseille two days before boarding the ship. The wife had apparently told the doctor that the narrator would be joining her soon with their bags and tickets. “It was at that moment,” the narrator explains, “that I suddenly knew for certain that she had never existed at all.” When he arrives in New York City, he checks her uncle’s address but finds it to be “an anonymous gap” between two buildings. Gekko informs him that the uncle had moved to San Francisco after the death of his daughter.
The narrator concludes his letter by asking V. to tell this story in order to “clarify” it” through the prism” of his art. He is no longer certain if his wife is an adulteress or a pathological liar. He adds that he fears she is walking along the beaches of Marseille, waiting for him to arrive. Fearing that his guilt over leaving her may cause him to replicate the actions of Shakespeare’s Othello, who killed himself after realizing he had murdered his innocent wife, he asks V. not to allude to the play in the story’s title. Of course, this is exactly what V. does.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Vladimir Nabokov, Published by Gale, 2002.