Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Ukraine. Russian province (now an independent country) that borders the north coast of the Black Sea. The relationship between Vanya and Professor Serebriakóv mirrors the relationship between provincial Ukraine and Russia. During Chekhov’s lifetime and well into the twentieth century, Russia exploited Ukraine’s rich agricultural and natural resources to feed and fuel other regions and provinces. Similarly, Professor Serebriakóv exploits the labor of Vanya and Sónya in order to maintain his life and career in Moscow.
Serebriakóv farm. Farm in Ukraine from which Serebriakóv derives the wealth on which he has built his social position in Moscow. Chekhov provides an increasingly intimate portrait of the Serebriakóv family and the forces that begin to erode the relationships between family members as each act penetrates deeper into the family’s history and deeper into the interior of the farm. A crisis between Vanya and the professor divides the household. In the play’s second act, Yelena says that there is “something terribly wrong going on in this house.” As tensions grow stronger among the characters, the farm becomes a microcosm of society in general. “You know perfectly well it’s not crime and criminals that are destroying the world,” Yelena explains to Vanya in the second act. “It’s petty little emotions like envy . . . that end up with good people hating one...
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In 1861, one year after Chekhov was born, Czar Alexander II abolished serfdom in Russia. Serfs were essentially slaves and were forced to work for their owners unless they could purchase their own freedom. Once peasants were no longer owned by others, they were not necessarily free because most of them had no possessions and were enslaved through indebtedness. In the 1860s, peasants constituted eighty percent of the population of Russia.
Once serfdom was abolished, Russia underwent a period of social unrest, characterized by student rebellion and protests by political radicals. In 1872, Karl Marx’s Das Kapital was translated into Russian and the Russian people were introduced to the basic tenets of communism. In 1881, Czar Alexander II was assassinated by terrorists. Alexander III assumed rule of the country, and what followed was a time of mass arrests and deportations. Alexander III ruled until his death in 1894, when Czar Nicholas assumed power.
Although Chekhov’s plays and stories aren’t overtly political, the writer was the grandson of a serf and throughout his lifetime he came into frequent contact with the peasants and other povertystricken members of Russian society because of his work as a physician. In 1890, Chekhov visited the prison of Sakhalin, to care for the sick and record the conditions of the prisoners. Despite an awareness of the plight of others, Chekhov was not...
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One way to understand the construction of Uncle Vanya is to contrast it with its earlier incarnation, The Wood Demon. Eric Bentley, in Critical Essays on Anton Chekhov, called The Wood Demon ‘‘a farce spiced with melodrama.’’ In that version, Chekhov emphasizes the romantic interests of the characters and the play concludes with the coupling of Astrov and Sonya. No one is successfully paired up in Uncle Vanya. In The Wood Demon Vanya commits suicide. In Uncle Vanya Vanya survives only to have his bleakest fears about life confirmed. Wrote Bentley: ‘‘To the Broadway script-writer, also concerned with the rewriting of plays (especially if in an early version a likable character shoots himself), these alterations of Chekhov’s would presumably seem unaccountable. They would look like a deliberate elimination of the dramatic element.’’ Uncle Vanya is constructed in a purposefully unconventional way, one that illustrates certain ideas about how individuals bear up and continue to live in the midst of considerable suffering.
Uncle Vanya is set entirely within Serebryakov’s estate. Although the play opens in the garden behind the estate, most of the action takes place inside the rambling, twenty-six-room estate that Vanya and Sonya have managed and Sonya presumably owns. Many of the characters find the...
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Compare and Contrast
1897: Marxist Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov is exiled to Siberia for three years for smuggling illegal literature from Europe into Russia, organizing strikes, and printing anti-government leaflets and manifestoes. Ulyanov was the older brother of Lenin, the father of Russia’s communist revolution.
Today: Soviet president Boris Yeltsin regularly meets with world leaders, including U. S. President Bill Clinton, to exchange ideas.
1897: Regard for conservation of natural resources is low, with most not considering the impact of the vast depletion of forests. In Uncle Vanya, Astrov is concerned with the devastation of the forests. He proposes that instead of wood, peat could be used for heat and stones for building houses.
Today: Conservation of natural resources is a primary concern. About 655 million acres—or approximately 29% of the land area of the United States—has been designated forestland and is under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of Agriculture. The state with the largest national forest area is Alaska (22.2 million acres), followed by California (20.6 million acres).
1897: In Uncle Vanya Sonya and Vanya become distracted by the arrival of Serebryakov and Yelena, allowing the crops to remain untended. Food shortages are a regular occurrence in Europe and Russia. In 1891 and 1892, Russia was crippled...
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Topics for Further Study
It has been suggested that Astrov’s initial conversation with the nurse acts as an overture to the play, hinting at the important issues that Vanya and others will later elaborate upon, just as a musical overture introduces certain melodic themes. How might Astrov’s speech be viewed as an overture? Also, discuss how Sonya’s concluding speech might be viewed as the play’s finale.
Research the lives of peasants in Russia in the late-nineteenth century. What are the similarities and differences between the enslavement of African Americans in the U. S. and serfdom in Russia? Examine Marina and Telegin in Uncle Vanya and consider what Chekhov might be saying about the various classes in Russian society.
The characters in Uncle Vanya often discuss work and idleness. For instance, Astrov, in parting from Yelena, says: ‘‘You infected us with your slothfulness. I have lazed away a whole month, while the people have grown sicker . . .’’ What is Chekhov saying about the value of honest work? Be sure to discuss each character’s attitude toward work, including the views set forth by Serebryakov and Maria Vasilyevna.
Chekhov was a practicing doctor, and doctors often appear in his plays. Analyze how Astrov’s profession makes him like—or unlike—the other characters in the play. Compare and contrast Astrov with the doctor characters in other Chekhov plays, such as Dorn in The Sea Gull or Tchebutykin...
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In 1994, Louis Malle directed a film version of Uncle Vanya, entitled Vanya on 42nd Street. The film takes an usual approach to Chekhov’s text in that it portrays a theatre company rehearsing the play for production. The lives of the actors mirror the action within the playwright’s script. Playwright David Mamet (Speed the Plow) wrote the adaptation of the play, Grammy nominee Joshua Redman created the jazz score, and Julianne Moore, Wallace Shawn (as Vanya), and Andre Gregory starred in the production.
In 1962, Stuart Burge filmed and directed a film adaptation of Uncle Vanya, which starred Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright, Rosemary Harris, and Michael Redgrave. The onstage version of the play was directed by Olivier at the Chichester Drama Festival.
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What Do I Read Next?
The Three Sisters, a Chekhov play first produced at the Moscow Art Theater in 1901, is the story of a wealthy Russian family who longs to move to Moscow, but the three sisters find themselves mired in provincial life. Like Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters is a play of thwarted desires and indirect action.
In The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov’s characters long to preserve an orchard that holds fond memories rather than allowing it to be chopped down and turned into a subdivision.
Chekhov was deeply influenced by Leo Tolstoy. There are parallels between Tolstoy’s treatment of the peasants and of religious faith in Anna Karenina and Chekhov’s treatment of the same subjects in Uncle Vanya. However, Anna Karenina is also considered one of the world’s great, tragic love stories.
Like Chekhov George Eliot was a proponent of realism in literature. Her masterpiece— Middlemarch—is the story of Dorothea Brooke, a woman who wants to make a worthwhile contribution to society but is thwarted by a tragically misbegotten marriage.
Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady is one of the world’s finest novels about deception and frustrated desires.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bentley, Eric. ‘‘Craftsmanship in Uncle Vanya’’ in Critical Essays on Anton Chekhov, G. K. Hall, 1989, pp. 169-85.
Eekman, Thomas A. Introduction to Critical Essays on Anton Chekhov, G. K. Hall, 1989, pp. 1-7.
Nabokov, Vladimir. ‘‘Chekhov’s Prose’’ in Critical Essays on Anton Chekhov, G. K. Hall, 1989, pp. 26-33.
Pitcher, Harvey. The Chekhov Play, University of California Press, 1985.
Timmer, Charles B. ‘‘The Bizarre Element in Chekhov’s Art’’ in Anton Chekhov’s Plays, W. W. Norton, 1977, pp. 272-85.
Bordinat, Philip. ‘‘Dramatic Structure in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya ’’ in Chekhov’s Great Plays, New York University Press, 1981, pp. 47-60. A discussion of how Chekhov’s plays are structured.
Gilman, Richard. Chekhov’s Plays: An Opening into Eternity, Yale University Press, 1997. An examination of each of Chekhov’s full-length plays, placing them in the context of Russian and European drama and of the artist’s own life.
Koteliansky, S. S., editor and translator. Anton Tchekhov: Literary and Theatrical Reminiscences, Benjamin Blom, 1965. A collection of literary and theatrical reminiscences of Chekhov from writers Leo Tolstoy and Maxim...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bentley, Eric. “Craftsmanship in Uncle Vanya.” In Anton Chekhov’s Plays, translated and edited by Eugene K. Bristow. New York: Norton, 1977. Bentley shows that Chekhov’s naturalism in Uncle Vanya is grounded in his mature psychological vision that life has no real endings.
Bordinat, Philip. “Dramatic Structure in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.” In Chekhov’s Great Plays: A Critical Anthology, edited with an introduction by Jean-Pierre Barricelli. New York: New York University Press, 1981. Bordinat argues that Uncle Vanya follows classical dramatic construction if the protagonist is seen as “the individual” embodied in the four major characters. The conflict then becomes the individual’s desire for happiness in the face of the provincial Russian “wasteland.”
Melchinger, Siegfried. “The Wood Demon and Uncle Vanya.” In Anton Chekhov, translated by Edith Tarcov. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1972. Melchinger analyzes how Chekhov reworked his unsuccessful 1889 play, The Wood Demon (Leshy) into the groundbreaking 1897 Uncle Vanya. He focuses particularly on the parallel situations of Astrov and Vanya in the later play.
Peace, Richard. “Uncle Vanya.” In Chekhov: A Study of the Four Major Plays. New Haven,...
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