An epistolary work comprises a series of letters, written by different characters to one another. The plot is here unfolded or developed by any direct or epic method of narration. It grows out of those letters and the characters, too, are revealed out of them. The epistolary method is quite popular, particularly in fictional writing.
Rabindranath’s The Wife’s Letter is no long narrative in prose. It is definitely a short prose narrative. But the narrative here is in the form of a letter which one character, Mrinal, writes to someone else, indicated as her husband, who is left unnamed. The very introductory greeting, the complimentary close, and the concluding signature (Mrinal) testify to the epistolary character of the work.
But how far is the work, a satisfactory short story? A short story, as already asserted, is short. Brevity in length is its essence and differentiates it from a novel that has enough bulk. Yet, this is not all. A short story is also distinguished by its straightforward, unelaborated narration of a single story in a single situation. Unity in the plot and the structure forms the key constituent in a good short story. The plot needs to be organized and compact with different characters participating in it. But the number of characters, like the length of the story, is restricted here. The paucity of character is one more distinguishing mark in a good short story. Of course, the interaction of these characters, no matter how few they are, leads up the plot that proceeds from the beginning to the middle to reach finally a conclusion, whatever this may be. Finally, there is the impression produced that must be interesting, provocative, and lasting in a really good short story.
The Wife’s Letter, as a short story from Tagore, is not all conventional in structure. It is, as already pointed out, in the form of a letter. This letter actually contains the story, which is well organized and compact, as in a good short story. This has also a beginning, after the introductory portion of the letter, with the selection of Mrinal, a rural girl as a bride for her beauty, her marriage, and conventional domestic living. The middle comes after the beginning with the birth of a daughter to her and the infant’s immediate death and her own illness. Bindu’s arrival, her intimacy with Mrinal, her marriage with a mad person, her acute suffering, like a hunted creature, and her poignant death by setting fire on her saree are the parts of the middle. The conclusion comes after Mrinal’s realization about the sad truth of domesticity and conjugal relationship and the revelation of her own self to herself. She has the firm resolve to go back no more to her husband’s home at 27, Makhan Boral Lane, without raising the stereotyped complaint of a helpless wife against a tyrannical husband. The end comes in no traditional manner but with a stout determination to leave, though bereft of the shelter of her husband’s family feet. The letter ends here formally with the writer’s (Mrinal’s) signature.
Indeed, there is no dispute about the structural orderliness and the thematic precision of the story. Moreover, unlike such short stories, like The Fly, The Ox, and Araby, several characters are mentioned in The Wife’s Letter. But except Mrinal and Bindu, the slighted, rather oppressed women, and Sarat, the former’s brother, others are of no material significance, somewhat shadowy figures in the story. Hence the required paucity of characters in a short story is not missing in the present story.
And there is the final impression. This is touching enough. The end, of course, is not happy or sad from a conventional angle. Mrinal leaves her husband’s house like Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, while Bindu’s self-slaughter is full of pathos. Yet, there is a sense of relief, rather than release, in this end in death or departing. In her death, in Mrinal’s language, ‘she (Bindu) has attained greatness’. “There, she is no longer simply the daughter of a Bengali household, the young sister of his tyrannical cousins, the deceived wife of an unknown mad husband. There she is infinite”. And Mrinal lives with her grand resolve
“I too shall live. At last, I live,
Bereft of the shelter of your family’s feet”
Finally, there remains the old issue—the letter form of the story. Here the short story comes closer to an epistolary novel. In such a novel, however, different characters write letters. Such letters build its theme and reveal different characters. The letter here is one, written by a woman, Mrinal, addressing one, indicated as her husband. There is no reply from him nor any other letter from anyone else. The whole narrative comes from a single character. Here the story may well appear to be a first-person narrative. But the whole story is bound by the formal form of a letter. Its epistolary character is undeniable. In its ultimate analysis, The Wife’s Letter is a satisfactory short story in an epistolary form.