Čexov’s “Supruga”: Close Reading and Closed Reading

Throughout his career as an author of fiction, Čexov returns again and again to letters as a foregrounding focus for his concern with communication. A letter provides a sort of snapshot of the six elements involved in any verbal communication as outlined by Roman Jakobson in his classic “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics,” and this paper will employ Jakobson’s framework and terminology as a basis for its analysis. Ordinary communication by letter or the use of letters in works of literature (for example, the epistolary novel of the eighteenth century) generally assumes the unhindered operation of each of these constituents. However, letters in Čexov’s works are typically defective with regard to one or more functions and the emphasis shifts to the consequences of the malfunction of one or more of the elements in an act of communication, with successful communication through the medium of the letter taking place only rarely in his works.

In the present paper, after several examples of epistolary breakdown in Čexov’s early works, I will present a close reading “Supruga” (1895), a story that is itself about close reading, or rather misreading, of epistolary and other texts. In the story, texts of various sorts (a telegram, a photograph, the “text” of another person’s words and behavior) are discovered, decoded, and interpreted by a husband who is suspicious of his wife (and has his suspicions confirmed by her). The discovery of a compromising letter by a suspicious husband, even if by chance, is of course a well-worn cliche of melodramatic novels of adultery. Čexov shifts attention from the hackneyed possibilities for plot to questions of interpretation and judgment, the epistemological and ethical issues that arise from intercepting texts not intended for us. By usurping the role of the addressee and arrogating to himself the right of interpretation (or judgment), the husband attempts to control meaning, but ironically reveals himself as a closed reader. His readings, particularly of the photograph, are in fact projections of his own obsessions onto texts that may not in fact support his interpretation. The story ends with him compulsively writing and rewriting the salutation of a letter to no one. Locked in his own readings (or misreadings) of texts, he also fails in the role of addresser, attempting contact with a non-existent addressee. Such mechanical writing is at best an imitation of a probe to establish a channel of communication, but there is no message and no recipient. This displaced exercise in non-communication reflects the absence of communication in the marriage itself, the lack of mutual contact between suprug and supruga, with the echoing quality of the terms masking the absence of any real marital harmony. In an analogous fashion, the plot situation of adultery has deteriorated into a literary dead end. The reader is forced to consider not what happens next (nothing apparently) but rather what has happened, how did this sorry situation come about (and in fact there is little evidence provided). Like the husband puzzling over the text of the telegram to his wife in order to figure out who it is from and what it says, the reader must puzzle over the story, trying to make sense of a text in another language, that of a failed marriage.