Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 546

Only Vladimir Nabokov could have written “That in Aleppo Once,” an unusually complex short story with several levels of meaning. Chief among these are geometric patterns, word games, human relationships, and allusions to other authors. From its title through its end, “That in Aleppo Once” mimics the pattern of William Shakespeare’s Othello (1604), and Nabokov’s story follows a similar theme of love, perceived betrayal, and the progressive decline of the hero until he is consumed, like Othello, by despair and delusion.

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When he is late for a train, he loses his wife for a week. When his wife shows up, she tells him that she has slept with three refugee women. Later, she changes her story to having slept with a hair-lotion salesperson. Shortly afterward, she tells other people that an aristocrat was courting her, and that the narrator had threatened to shoot her and himself if she left him. On another level, the narrator marries (gains) her, loses her on the train, gets her back, loses her again when she leaves, almost gets her back through the friend on the boat who saw her in Marseilles, and loses her definitively when he sails without her.

In his quest for a visa, the narrator talks about the hopeless spiral: “We were trying to get . . . certain papers which in their turn would make it lawful to apply for a third kind which would serve as a steppingstone towards a permit enabling the holder to apply for yet other papers.”

The narrator refers to an embankment on which he pictures his wife standing. It first appears as an “endless wind-swept embankment.” Later, at the end of the story, it becomes “the hot stone slabs” with “tiny pale bits of broken fish scales” on which he pictures his wife walking.

Even the narrator’s choice of words shows a devolving pattern: He starts the letter with sublime prose: “the sonorous souls of Russian verbs would lend a meaning to the wild gesticulation of trees,” but, by the end, he is reduced to inane, slanted rhymes: “How is Ines? How are the twins. . . . How are the lichens?”

To make matters worse, the narrator’s wife lives in her own world, and the narrator’s attempts to understand her lead him to further confusion. For example, on the train from Paris, she starts crying about the dog they have left behind. When the narrator tells her they had never had a dog, she replies, “I know, but I tried to imagine we had actually bought that setter.” The narrator does not recall ever talking about buying a setter. However, the dog takes on a life of its own, so that, near the end of his stay in Nice, the narrator is rebuked by an old Russian matron for hanging “that poor beast . . . with your own hands before leaving Paris.”

The downward spiral ends in the narrator’s recognition that he has made “a fatal mistake,” just as Othello had in killing Desdemona, and the subsequent realization that he must pay for this mistake. The unfortunate implication of the title is that, as the author himself fears, he will ultimately lose control and end up killing himself—hence the line, “It may all end in Aleppo if I am not careful.”

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