By Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings © 2004
Uncle Vanya is a tragicomedy in four acts. It was published in 1897 as an improved version of an earlier play, Wood Demon, completed in 1889. Uncle Vanya debuted on the stage in 1899 at the Moscow Art Theater.
The action takes place in rural Russia in the 1890's on an estate with a farm.
The complete title of the play is Uncle Vanya: Scenes From Country Life. (Some translators call the play Dyadya Vanya: Scenes From Country Life because the transliteration of uncle from the Russian equivalent is Dyadya, with the y pronounced like the y in you, not like the y in by.)
Astrov is at the estate to treat the gout and rheumatism of Professor Serebrakov, an old man who inherited the estate from his first wife, Vera. The professor is out strolling with his beautiful second wife, Helena, who is only twenty-seven, and his daughter, Sonya, by his first wife. Sonya is also in her twenties. With them is a neighbor, Telegin, nicknamed Waffles, because of a checkered scar on his face. Marina is Sonya’s nanny.
Vanya, Sonya’s uncle and the brother of Vera, comes out to the garden and joins Marina and Astrov. Vanya has lived on the estate since the time his sister owned it. He continues to manage its farm. For years, he sent a large portion of the farm’s profits to Serebrakov when he was living elsewhere and teaching art at a university. Now that the professor has retired and come to live at the estate, schedules have changed and Vanya is irritated. Vanya, who has been sleeping since breakfast, says the professor’s habits—including staying up at night to write and pore over books, then sleeping till noon the next day—have affected everyone’s routines. Marina, commiserating with him, says lunch has been pushed back from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.
After his stroll, Professor Serebrakov comes by with Helena and the others. He talks about the lovely view of the countryside, then asks that tea be brought to him in his study, where various tasks await him. Telegin sits down as the other strollers go indoors. Vanya remarks on the extraordinary beauty of Helena, laments his boring life, criticizes his mother, Marya, for reading a booklet about the emancipation of women, and carps about the professor and his faults. Vanya says he once admired old Serebrakov but now despises him. Helena should cheat on her decrepit husband, he says, rather than wasting her youth on him. Telegin expresses displeasure at the remark and notes that he himself has remained faithful to his wife even though she left him for another man the day after their wedding. Over the years, he has financially supported her and the children she had by her lover.
Sonya and Helena return to the garden, followed by Vanya’s mother, who brings up the subject of a new pamphlet she has received. Vanya cuts her off, saying he has heard enough about her pamphlets over the last fifty years. Firing back, she says he was once a man of strong convictions but has allowed his weaknesses to get the better of him.
Yefim, a farmhand, comes up and says Dr. Astrov is needed at a factory. Before he leaves, Sonya and Helena inquire about his tree-planting project, in which each year he plants a plot of land with birches and other trees. His endeavor has earned him a government certificate and a medal of achievement. Only too happy to oblige the young ladies, Astrov launches into a speech about the wisdom of preserving the forests for posterity; plundering the wilderness cannot continue, he says, or the consequences will be dire for future generations.
After Astrov leaves, Vanya and Helena head indoors. Along the way, Vanya tells her what he has apparently told her many times before: that he worships her and wants to be more than her friend. She brushes aside his amorous banter.
After midnight, in the Serebrakovs’ quarters, the professor crabs about his health and the burdens of old age. Tired of his griping, Helena exchanges sharp words with him. He continues grumbling, asks for his medicine, and complains when she produces the wrong container. When Sonya enters to report that Dr. Astrov has arrived, as the professor requested, the old fart refuses to see the physician, calling him a quack. Vanya comes in with a candle and says he will “relieve” Helena and Sonya and watch over the old man. Serebrakov protests, saying Vanya talks too much. Marina comes in and sweet-talks the old man, persuading him to go to bed.
Helena then bemoans the contentiousness on the estate. Vanya’s mother despises everyone but the professor, Vanya despises his mother and the professor, the professor argues with Helena and Vanya, and Sonya hasn’t spoken to Helena in a long time. Vanya renews his pursuit of Helena, telling her how much he loves her.
After Helena leaves, Astrov enters with Telegin and commands him to play the guitar, even though others are asleep. Astrov, too, has been drinking. Sonya advises him to quit alcohol, saying a man of his stature shouldn’t allow drink to control his tongue and his feelings. When she asks him what he would do if he discovered a young lady loved him, he says he is incapable of loving anyone. Sonya is that lady, of course, but Astrov takes no notice of her.
Later, Helena and Sonya make up. The two women, both in their late twenties, had been at odds over Helena’s marriage to the professor. Sonya thought Helena married her father for his money. Helena, however, vows she married him for what she thought was love but admits that it was mere infatuation with his persona as a prominent and cultured educator. Now that the young ladies are reconciled, they laugh and hug. Helena wants to play the piano but asks Sonya to get the professor’s permission because music annoys him when he’s ill. He refuses it.
The next day, Vanya, Sonya, and Helena convene in the Serebrakov living room for a 1 p.m. meeting called by the professor for an undisclosed reason. Vanya says it can’t be important because the professor doesn’t have anything important to say. When he criticizes Helena for idly flitting about with nothing to do, she admits she is bored. Sonya suggests a cure: Help with household chores or go out and instruct children. Helena’s boredom, Sonya says, is catching, infecting everyone. Vanya urges Helena to ignore the professor and fall in love with someone. When Helena complains of being picked on, Vanya pacifies her and goes out to gather her some flowers.
Sonya then bemoans Astrov’s lack of interest in her. Offering to help, Helena says she’ll drop hints to him and tells Sonya to fetch him under the pretense that Helena wants to see his forestry maps. After Astrov enters with the maps and lays them on a table, he points out the areas endangered by human encroachment, giving another long discourse on the importance of conservation. Helena then explains the real reason she wants to see him, asking him point blank whether he loves Sonya, as she does him. After he says he respects Sonya but has no feelings for her, he confesses that he loves Helena, then boldly seizes and kisses her. She tries to break away as Vanya enters. Clearly upset by Astrov’s advances, she asks Vanya to persuade her husband to leave the estate to live with her elsewhere.
The professor enters with Sonya, Telegin, and Marina and tells everyone to sit down. Privately, Helena gives Sonya the bad news about Astrov. Sonya is crestfallen. After Marya enters, the professor announces the purpose of the meeting: He plans to sell the estate, which makes only a meager profit, reinvest the proceeds in a more profitable venture, and move to Finland. Vanya protests, saying he assumed the estate was Sonya’s, inasmuch as Vanya’s father passed it to Vanya’s sister, Vera (Sonya’s mother), after he died and that Sonya inherited the property from Vera after she died. Vanya rants about how hard he worked to make the farm a success, faithfully sending the professor most of the profits while keeping only 50 rubles a year for himself.
Professor Serebrakov concedes Vanya’s point, saying he meant to get Sonya’s approval to sell the property. But Vanya continues his tirade. While the others try to calm him, Marya sides with the professor. Telegin asks Vanya to stop his angry declamation. Vanya pays no attention and attacks the professor as a fraud who knows nothing about art. In disgust, Telegin leaves. Marya says, “Listen to Alexander.” Then Vanya leaves. Sonya asks her father to go and make peace with Vanya, saying the latter did in fact work hard for him.
Shortly after the professor leaves, the sound of a gunshot rings through the hallways. The professor, running back into the living room, shouts for someone to restrain Vanya, who has shot at the professor but missed. Vanya shoots again and misses. Finally, he throws the pistol to the floor and sits down.
Sometime later, on an autumn evening, furniture movers are going to and fro as the professor and Helena prepare to relocate to Kharkov. Winding yarn with Telegin, Marina expresses relief that the estate will soon return to its normal routine. When Astrov and Vanya come in from outdoors, Astrov asks Vanya to return an item he took from his bag. Vanya says he took nothing. Then Vanya says everyone must think him insane; otherwise, he would have been arrested for attempted murder. Astrov says Vanya is not insane, just eccentric. Everyone, in fact, is eccentric, he says; it’s normal to be eccentric. Vanya laments his shameful behavior while the doctor presses him for the missing item, a bottle of morphine. Sonya intervenes and persuades Vanya to return it.
When Astrov is alone with Helena, he kisses her goodbye on the cheek. In return, she kisses him passionately for a moment, then leaves with her husband. Astrov leaves shortly thereafter.
Sonya and Vanya get back to the business of running the estate.
Idleness Breeds Discontent and Unrest
Most of the principal characters—in particular, Vanya—are bored by their failure to take part in productive activity. This boredom leads to brooding, petulance, grumbling, quarreling, and finally to Vanya’s crazed gun attack. Although Chekhov refrains from moralizing and outrightly stating his theme, one can conclude that Uncle Vanya is an attack on the idle provincial life of the upper classes in czarist Russia. A daring interpreter of the play may go further, deciding that the estate where the play is set is a microcosm representing a world in which upper classes—for want of something better to do—foment social unrest, upheaval, and war.
Regret for Roads not Taken
Many of the characters wonder about the opportunities they missed because of their complacency. They too often accept their lot in life without making attempts to better themselves.
Vanya lashes out at the professor for his lack of appreciation of Vanya's hard work in keeping up the estate and the farm. After expressing his displeasure, Vanya gets a pistol and shoots at the professor.
The climax of Uncle Vanya occurs when Vanya shoots at the professor. It is not a traditional climax, however, in that it solves no problems and triggers no important changes. It does prove, though, that Vanya is bad shot—or that he intends only to frighten the professor.
The plot is uncomplicated; the style is simple, straightforward, and generally free of intrusive sermonizing from the author. Chekhov effectively uses trivial circumstances and humdrum activities to draw out universal truths.
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904), a physician with a degree from Moscow State University, excelled in writing both plays and short stories. His father was a grocer who was born a serf, a laborer legally bound to the land and the will of his master.