Communication and Miscommunication
Nabokov’s France is a place where attempts at communication routinely break down. For example, when the narrator and his wife write to her uncle in New York, they receive no reply. After finding his wife (and the train) gone at Faugeres, the narrator engages in a “nightmare struggle with the telephone” trying to find her, and sends “two or three telegrams which are probably on their way only now.” These examples of bureaucratic miscommunication serve to underscore the more subtle examples of miscommunication that occur throughout the story. For example, the narrator’s wife is initially attracted to his “obscure” verse, only to eventually find behind it “a stranger’s unlovable face.” She had thought the man would be as mysterious as his poetry, but was mistaken. Similarly, before his wife tells him that she has been unfaithful, her body language communicates to him tenderness (he “held her by her slender young hips”) and beauty (“she was combing her soft hair and tossing her head back with every stroke”), not the horrifying and jarring news she is about to impart. The narrator’s visit to Anna Vladimirovna also raises this issue for Vladimirovna accuses him of hanging his wife’s dog, despite the fact that he and his wife never even owned one. Apparently, his wife’s lies about her marriage are more believable than his truths.
The story’s primary communication occurs at the very end, when the narrator tells V., “It may all end in Aleppo if I am not careful.” With this remark, he is telling his friend (in a literary and roundabout way) that he is considering suicide. When V. titles the story as he does, he is implying to the narrator that he should “’end in Aleppo” and take his own life.
In Othello, the evil lago offers his famous warning to Othello: O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock The meat it feeds on.
Of course, lago knows that a mind infected with jealousy is almost impossible to set right again. As his own wife remarks, jealous men “are not ever jealous for the cause, / But jealous for they are jealous.” The meat that feeds a jealous mind is never in short supply.
Like Othello, the narrator becomes obsessed by the tormenting thoughts of his wife sleeping with another man. When his wife tells him that she spent “several nights in Montpellier with a brute of a man” she met on the train, the narrator struggles to extract every shred of information he can about the affair. As Othello becomes wracked with a seizure after imagining his wife making love with Cassio (her supposed lover), the narrator spends his days “crushing and crushing” his “mad molar” until his jaw “almost burst with pain.” Also like Othello nothing the narrator does to dispel his jealousy has any effect. Although he says that he eventually believed his wife when she later said she was not unfaithful, he still “felt an undercurrent of poignant sadness.” While he tries to console himself with the lame excuse that this sadness “was an intrinsic feature in all true bliss,” he cannot cleanse his mind of the jealousy and mistrust that has taken root there.
Unlike Othello, however, who learns that his jealousy was the result of lago’s malice, the narrator never knows if his jealousy is grounded in fact. His not knowing the truth concerning his wife’s activities proves just as torturous as having a definitive answer. As lago tells Othello, ‘That cuckold lives in bliss Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger; But O, what damned minutes tells he o’er Who dotes, yet doubts; suspects, yet strongly loves!’
These last lines perfectly describe the narrator, who still feels very strongly for his wife (he is considering suicide over leaving her) yet cannot shake the suspicion that she has betrayed him. This inability to ever know the truth is what leads him to seek the assistance of V., whom he hopes will be able to tell him whether he is a cuckold or a callous man.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Vladimir Nabokov, Published by Gale, 2002.