From Husband to Lover to Husband to Lover to Husband: Chekhov’s Story “Volodia Bol’shoi i Volodia Malen’kii” and Unlimited Semiosis

Nikita Nankov, Indiana University, Bloomington

This paper clarifies one major feature of the poetics of Chekhov’s prose fiction, which in accordance with the semiotic tradition of Charles Sanders Peirce, Roman Jakobson, and Umberto Eco can be termed unlimited semiosis. This concept states that every sign can be interpreted by other signs, and, therefore, the search for a final meaning on the plane of signs disconnected from praxis is unlimited.

An important body of Chekhov’s short stories—including but not restricted to works such as “Loshadinnaia familiia,” “Perekati-pole,” “Chernyi monakh,” “Zhivoi tovar,” “Volodia bol’shoi i Volodia malen’kii,” “Strakh,” “Supruga,” “Gusev,” or “Spat’ khochetsia”—can be explained on the synchronic or narratological level by means of unlimited semiosis. In terms of diachrony and Chekhov’s place in the history of Russian literature, unlimited semiosis positions this writer between the Romantic and Symbolist traditions, both of which are based in many ways on this semiotic principle. Andrei Bely’s assertion from 1904-1907, for instance, that Chekhov is the last realist and the first Symbolist in Russian literature, boils down to unlimited semiosis, notwithstanding the fact that Bely never develops his statement’s full narratological and historical potential.

The heuristic and narratological usefulness of unlimited semiosis with respect to Chekhov’s poetics can be demonstrated in an interpretation of the short story “Volodia bol’shoi i Volodia malen’kii,” in which the protagonist, Sof’ia L’vovna, searches in vain for the ultimate meaning of her life by running incessantly from her husband, Vladimir Nikitych Iagin or the Big Volodia, to her friend and lover, Vladimir Mikhailich or the Little Voldia, and back.

The analysis sheds light on three entwined levels of the story which, in their totality, speak not only of Sof’ia L’vovna’s quest for meaning (which can be easily interpreted from a gender and feminist point of view), but also of existential human issues. 1) On individual level, or the plane of Sof’ia L’vovna’s individual life, the analysis deals with the heroine’s attitude to God, Volodia Bol’shoi, Volodia Malen’kii, and her father. In all these relationships, the protagonist oscillates ceaselessly between the attractive and repulsive characteristics of these male patriarchal figures. 2) On the universal level, or the plane on which Sof’ia L’vovna is depicted as a woman whose problem is common for all named and anonymous female characters in the story, I examine the narratological devices by which a single personal story in Chekhov, that of Sof’ia L’vovna, becomes a universal gender and human issue. 3) The first two levels share a major common feature: on both of them the characters are ambivalent, that is, they are both identical and non-identical with themselves. This ambivalence generates unlimited semiosis, that is to say, the possibility for an endless and futile search for the true pre-given meaning of one’s life.