Chekhov wrote Uncle Vanya between 1896 and 1898. The play represents the existential plight and daily struggles of Russian middle class intellectuals, including Dr. Mikhail Astrov and Ivan Voinitsky, also called “Uncle Vanya,” the forty-seven year old who manages the estate of his relative, the famous Professor Serebriakov. Astrov feels responsibility for people’s health and for his country’s well-being. He regrets the environmental degradation of his area and finds meaning and personal consolation in helping people. This consolation is not available for Uncle Vanya, who spent two decades of his life working for Serebriakov, who turns out to be an empty, hypocritical person who cares only for himself and his own well-being.
Serebriakov plans to sell his estate and get rid of both Uncle Vanya and his own young daughter, Sonya, who works for him selflessly. Uncle Vanya is angry and desperate, feeling that he has spent his life working for a mere illusion. He tries to kill Serebriakov but fails and then thinks about suicide. The gentle and heroic Sonya talks him out of it. In contrast, Serebriakov’s relatively young and beautiful wife Helen, like her husband, lives only for herself and cares for nothing and no one beyond her own comfort.
Chekhov opposes Serebriakov’s urban, market-oriented egoism to the altruism of “little people,” such as Astrov. His critique of capitalist selfishness in contrast to the positive portrayal of Astrov’s commitment to service to the Russian people made the play popular with the Russian left-wing intelligentsia. Chekhov himself, however, was not optimistic about revolution; instead he focused on the decline and decay of old ways of life and values being destroyed by the new capitalist reality of the late nineteenth century.