What is the main theme in the play The Bear?

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One of the themes of "The Bear" is how human beings are so often enslaved by their emotions. Both Smirnov and Popova delude themselves into thinking that they can control their emotions, yet it's perfectly clear that they are incapable of doing so. They both claim that they're effectively finished with love, yet end up falling for each other at the end. Smirnov claims to ignore women as much as he can. Yet he's completely captivated by Popova's spirited reaction to his challenging her to a duel. He also finds himself irresistibly drawn to her dimpled cheeks. For her part, Popova claims that she died when her late husband passed away, but it's clear that she still wants to love and to be loved.

Of the two, Smirnov's emotions seem to be the most volatile and difficult to control. He's quick to take offense, so much so that he actually challenges Popova to a duel, despite the fact that she's a woman. Smirnov cannot restrain his emotions for any significant length of time; all he can do is exchange one emotion for another. So his declaration of love for Popova comes directly out of his anger towards her for a perceived insult to his honor.

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The Bear, also known as The Brute, is a one act play by Chekov which is entitled a "farce." This word gives us great help in understanding the play and how it operates. The two characters of Smirnov and Popova are farcical in their interactions with each other, and the central theme of the play seems to be the way that there is a very thin line that is drawn between the strong and intense human emotions of anger and passion and love and hate. This is of course most amply demonstrated by the way that Smirnov and Popova start off hating each other and eventually come to love each other with a desire that equals, or is even stronger than, their former mutual loathing. Both characters seem to be unable to control their own emotions in this regard and are quite annoyed with themselves for the way that emotions dominate them. Note what Smirnov says at the very end of the play before he kisses Popova:

I'm so fed up with myself! Falling in love like a schoolboy! Kneeling down! It's enough to give you the willies! I love you! Oh, it's just what the doctor ordered, this is!

The farce in this play lies in the way that extremes of emotion so quickly shift to other, opposite extremes, and so-called rational human beings are shown to be subject to their tempestuous emotions, which have much more control over their lives than reason. This is the theme of this masterful play.

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