Gleb Alexandrovich Gekko
An acquaintance of both the narrator and V. who has also emigrated to the United States, Gekko supplies the narrator with V.’s address.
Holmes Holmes is the “plain-clothes man” from the Nice police who assists the narrator in the search for his wife. Unlike his namesake, the infallible detective Sherlock Holmes, he fails in his attempt to solve the mystery at hand and leads the narrator to a seedy hotel, where he insists that a stranger he produces is the narrator’s wife.
“That in Aleppo Once…” takes the form of a letter written by an unnamed narrator to V., a fellow Russian expatriate living in New York City. A harmless, earnest, and innocent man, the narrator is reduced to despair over his wife’s probable infidelity. Her seeming naivete is what first attracted him to her. He met her several times “without experiencing any special emotions” and only kissed her on her hair (rather than, for example, her mouth or neck) when she said “something quaint.” He cannot imagine her as a potential adulteress. During a railway stop in Faugeres, he kindly steps off the train to buy some food for himself and his new bride. When he discovers that the train has left, he feels he is facing an “atrocious void” and takes great pains to find his missing wife. His concern for her is both believable and commendable. Clearly, he suspects nothing. When he finds her in Nice, he believes her “hazy” yet”perfectly banal” story of how she met up with a band of refugees and friends at a Russian church. The fact that he is admiring her beauty (“she was combing her soft hair and tossing her head back with every stroke”) while she delivers the terrible news of her betrayal suggests just how unsuspecting of her he is at that moment.
As if this is not sufficient torture for any husband to bear, his wife then tells him that she did not commit adultery. Her excuse—”Perhaps I live several lives at once. Perhaps I wanted to test you.”—is unconvincing to the reader, yet somewhat sufficient for him, since he yearns to live again in the world of quaint remarks and kisses on the head. Although he grows to accept her excuse, he cannot rid himself of the nagging doubts that her presumed “test” of him have engendered: the “happier” they become after this rift, the stronger he feels “an undercurrent of poignant sadness.” The narrator’s telling himself that such a feeling of sadness is “an intrinsic feature of all true bliss” is an attempt by him to impose order on the chaos that has infected his mind.
Such an attempt to make sense out of his wife’s disappearances and reappearances is what fuels the narrator’s letter. He hopes that V. will be able to use his talent by making sense out of disparate pieces of data and “clarifying things” through his art. By the letter’s end, however, the narrator appears a hopeless man whose doubts about his wife cause her to seem “an illusion.”
The Narrator’s Wife
As the narrator tells the entire story from his point of view, the reader is never allowed to view events through the lens of the story’s presumed adulteress. There are different possibilities for her behavior, however, room for all of which Nabokov allows. The first is that, as the reader most likely suspects, she is an unfaithful wife who attempts to retract her confession with a lame excuse and eventually spreads rumors about her husband amongst their expatriate friends. This seems the most likely scenario. After an incident when she cries about leaving an imaginary dog in their home, the narrator says, “There had never been any talk of buying a setter,” and the reader has little reason to doubt him. In addition, the narrator hardly seems like the kind of man who would kill such an animal in cold blood, as his wife tells Anna Vladimirovna he did. His wife’s reappearance on the embankment, telling the doctor that the narrator “would presently join her with bag and tickets,” causes the reader to regard her as an adulteress who assumes that her credulous husband will always receive her into his arms.
However, the possibility remains that she is not the strumpet she appears to be in the narrator’s account of their marriage. Such a reading would imply that she suffers from some mental disease that prompts her to create stories and tell them to other people (like the narrator, her Russian friends, Anna Vladimirovna, and the doctor). While this possibility may seem unlikely, or even ludicrous, the narrator’s guilt in leaving her at the end of the story suggests that he has certainly entertained this idea. Either she is an adulteress and he has, in his mind, rightfully forsaken her—or he has abandoned a sick woman to the Nazi menace in France. Both possibilities haunt the narrator.
Very little is known of V., the narrator’s friend who left France for the United States several weeks before the Germans entered Paris. The fact that he is a novelist, however, suggests to the narrator that V. is capable of making sense of his story. The narrator tells V. that he “can hardly be expected to puzzle out my misfortunes in terms of human communion, but you may clarify things for me through the prism of your art.” The narrator seeks a kind of literary third-party to arbitrate the disputing versions of his wife’s actions. Regardless of V.’s chosen interpretation of the facts, his naming the story what he does is a suggestion to the narrator that the narrator, like Othello, should take his own life.
Anna Vladimirovna is a busybody of a woman who knows the gossip and rumors concerning her fellow emigres. When the narrator asks her if she has seen his wife, Anna Vladimirovna calls him “a bully and a cad” and scolds him for not granting his wife a divorce. She never suspects (like the narrator and the reader) that the narrator’s wife invented her tale of a “young Frenchman who could give her a turreted home and a crested name.” She also berates the narrator for hanging his wife’s dog, another story told by his wife that Anna Vladimirovna, like the other refugees, wholly believes.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Vladimir Nabokov, Published by Gale, 2002.