Comment on the behavior of Popova in relation to the condition of women in Russian society in the drama The Bear.

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As the play starts, we see Popova mourning for her husband and her servant, Luka, trying to tell her to move on as he has been dead for 7 months. As part of his entreaties, he tells her:

You're young and beautiful, with roses in your cheek—if you only took a little pleasure. Beauty won't last long, you know. In ten years' time you'll want to be a pea-hen yourself among the officers, but they won't look at you, it will be too late.

This shows that for women in Russian society, beauty and youth are important. While older men can find young brides, women have a small window in which to find a suitable partner. As she considers her predicament and an unannounced visitor comes, Popova believes that someone is coming to take her to a convent:

No, I see that I shall have to go into a convent after all.

This shows that there are very few options for young women as Popova assumes that she either has to become a wife or a nun. She also considers her role as a widow and, we find out, her husband did not treat her well:

he used to leave me alone for weeks at a time, and make love to other women and betray me before my very eyes; he wasted my money, and made fun of my feelings.... And, in spite of all that, I loved him and was true to him.

However, a few moments later, Popova talks to the picture of her late husband, saying:

You will see, Nicolas, how I can love and forgive.... My love will die out with me, only when this poor heart will cease to beat. [Laughs through her tears] And aren't you ashamed? I am a good and virtuous little wife. I've locked myself in, and will be true to you till the grave, and you... aren't you ashamed, you bad child?

This shows the reader that her mourning, at least in part, is not genuine sadness but is rather a performance of sorts. While she did presumably love her husband in a way, it is clear that she also feels a lot of anger and resentment towards him. However, due to societal conventions, Popova is never able to really express that anger to everyone. Instead, she is meant to play the part of an emotionally wrecked widow who refuses to take another husband. All of this provides a pretty decent background for the characterization of Popova and for the traditional role of women in Russian society at the time.

However, where The Bear becomes interesting is when Popova goes against that idea. She is finally able to express her anger, threatening to shoot Smirnov in the face over his rude actions. Of course, that is also the precise moment Smirnov falls in love with her:

She is a woman! That's the sort I can understand! A real woman! Not a sour-faced jellybag, but fire, gunpowder, a rocket! I'm even sorry to have to kill her!


I absolutely like her! Absolutely! Even though her cheeks are dimpled, I like her! I'm almost ready to let the debt go... and I'm not angry any longer.... Wonderful woman!

This provides for a complex reading of the role of women in Russian society. On one hand, Smirnov mocks the feminist movement and women for wanting equality. However, once Popova begins to exercise a semblance of equality or, you could even argue, masculinity by agreeing to participate in a duel and learning to shoot, that is when she becomes attractive to him. So, women are expected to behave in a certain docile, emotionally repressed, almost prudish way by society. At the end of the day, they are more attractive when they act on their emotions and go against those same expectations. Of course, the whole play is a vaudevillian farce, so it is expected that the actions and situations of the characters are somewhat nonsensical. However, it can still be seen as a commentary on the impossible position that women face.

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I would say that, when it comes to issues of gender, "The Bear" seems to reflect attitudes of traditional sexism. These attitudes are present in both its characterization of Popova and also in Smirnov's own thoughts about women—and the indictments he makes against them. At the same time, when discussing a question such as this one, it might be worth thinking about the potential intersections between class and gender. Smirnov and Popova are both landowners after all, part of the aristocratic society of Tsarist Russia. This background does seem important: it serves as the context in which their social interactions, attitudes, experiences and expectations from life are shaped.

Beyond this, I would note, first of all, that infidelity is a key theme of this play. Popova's display of mourning is itself made in reaction to her deceased husband's infidelity against her, and furthermore, it should be noted, Smirnov's words concerning his own background reveal a history of womanizing on his own account. However, at the same time, it's worth noting that Popova's reaction to this infidelity is itself duplicitous. She has made a public display of mourning, in order to shame her deceased husband, and create a virtuous image for herself. But it isn't genuine. It's all a performance, motivated by injured pride.

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Popova is a widow, and she is in mourning for her husband, Nicolai Mihailovitch. Her servant, Luka, wishes that she would try to live again. Popova gets upset with him, saying that "life lost all its meaning for [her]" when Nicolas died. She speaks to him, as though he were present and could hear her, saying that she's locked herself in their house and "will be true to [him] till the grave." She prides herself on her loyalty to him.

When Smirnov arrives, he becomes angry when Popova says she is in no "state of mind" to discuss financial matters with him today. Smirnov accuses Popova of having a "real silly feminine logic." He thinks that she's trying to manipulate him with her "dimpled cheeks" and feminine wiles, but he insists that he will not be taken in by her coy tricks. Popova claims that Smirnov does not know how to behave toward women, but he says that he's known plenty of women, that he has dueled three times for women, that he used to put on cologne and speak softly, wear jewels, and bow. He describes all women as "insincere, crooked, backbiters, envious, liars to the marrow of their bones, vain, trivial, merciless, unreasonable [...]." He believes that no women are "sincere, faithful, and constant."

Popova insults Smirnov, calling him a bear and a monster, and she accepts his challenge to a duel. His feelings about her begin to change. He says, "If she fights, well that's equality of rights, emancipation, and all that! Here the sexes are equal! I'll shoot her on principle! But what a woman! [....] She accepted my challenge! My word, it's the first time in my life that I've seen...." He begins to like her because of her unusual strength, determination, and loyalty. Evidently, women do not enjoy the same rights as men, though Popova acts independently and inspires Smirnov to truly consider women's equality.

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In Anton Chekhov’s play, Elena Ivanovna Popova has recently lost her husband and decides to shut herself away from the world as a sign of her deep mourning. In many ways, this position is false because she knows he was unfaithful to her. She seems to be more concerned about the impression she is creating of the loyal wife than about facing her true feelings toward her late husband.

Popova’s reverie is interrupted by Gregorii Stepanovich Smirnov, who is in search of having a debt repaid. Initially, she sticks with her position of social propriety, as befits her widow status. Smirnov goads her by mocking her emotional female nature, echoing popular beliefs of the day about women’s innate differences from men. He further challenges her with a stereotypical symbol of male honor—the duel.

In emphasizing this vehicle for dispute resolution, Chekhov calls attention to the idea that women were not expected to defend their honor. Popova’s acceptance of his offer stimulates his love for her, demonstrating that not all men adhered to the same views of female roles.

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