Michael J. Cummings © 2004
Play, Publication, and First Performance
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.
action takes place in rural Russia in the 1890's on
an estate with a farm.
Retired professor of art. He suffers from gout and
wife of the professor. A dispute breaks out over
property she inherited
from her father.
aughter of Serebrakov and Vera.
remarkably beautiful second wife, who is only
Sonya’s uncle and Vera’s brother. He is forty-seven.
Vanya and Vera.
Physician attending Serebrakov.
who is Sonya’s nanny.
of the others. His nickname is Waffles.
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.)
3 p.m. in the garden of an estate, an old peasant
woman named Marina sits
knitting at a table under a poplar tree. From a
samovar, she pours a glass
of tea for Astrov, a physician, who accepts it while
they talk about the
changes in him in the past decade. He is much aged and
no longer handsome,
for the long hours he has worked caring for others—including
victims of a typhus epidemic—have
toll on him.
J. Cummings ©
is at the estate to treat the gout and rheumatism of
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
next day, Vanya, Sonya, and Helena convene in the
Serebrakov living room
for a 1 p.m. meeting called by the professor for an
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
and Vanya get back to the business of running the
of the principal characters—in
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
a world in which upper classes—for
something better to do—foment
upheaval, and war.
for Roads not Taken
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.
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
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
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.
although Uncle Vanya has earned a reputation as a
occasionally uses his characters as technical
devices to announce plot
developments to the audience rather than allowing
these developments to
flow out of actions and decisions of the characters.
For example, at the
beginning of Act III, Vanya tells Sonya and Helena
that he and they have
convened in the living room to hear an announcement
by the professor. One
would assume that the two women know where they are
and why their presence
is required. In other words, Vanya’s opening lines
are really intended
for the audience, not the other characters. A better
opening might have
had Vanya saying, “I wonder why the professor has
called us together?”
Or, perhaps, “There is a rumor among the peasants
that the professor plans
to sell the estate. Could that be true? Why are we
getting this news from
the likes of field hands?”
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.
Questions and Essay Topics
discontent on the estate
worked by Vanya intended as example of what was
happening all over Russia
any characters in
the play who are content with life as it is?
character (or characters)
do you admire or feel sympathy for?
character is the least
more upset with himself
or more upset with the egotistical professor?
professor more upset
with himself or with the people around him?
who works hard to maintain
the failing estate, seems a commendable young
lady. Why does Dr. Astrov
reject her? Why doesn't she strike out on her
you think Dr. Astrov
rejects her? Because of her looks compared with
really mean to murder
the professor, or did he deliberately botch the
Vanya’s mother side
with the professor during the argument provoking
Vanya to shoot at the
expository essay, describe
what life was like on a farm estate in czarist
Russia of the 19th Century?