What are the major ideas or themes in The Bear by Anton Chekov?
Consider vows made by the living to the dead, the difficulty of keeping resolutions, the nature of powerful emotions, the need to maintain conventions and expectations and so on.
Well...these are all excellent points, and amazingly so in light of the fact that Anton Chekov's The Bear is a comedy—and such a delightful one! It's easy sometimes to lose sight of the fact that Chekov was not just trying to amuse the members of his audience, but enlighten them as well. This is the sign of a truly fine writer.
The first prominent theme presented in the story is Popova's vow to remain faithful to her good-for-nothing, deceased husband. I would venture to assume that Chekov is satirizing those who all but die when a spouse "passes"—especially one who remains true to the memory of a husband who was an adulterer, who made fun of her, and was abusive in a number of ways. He broke her heart and embarrassed her, but somehow she believes that she can "show" him in death how wonderful she was in life. In my mind, Chekov finds her dedication a waste of time.
At first, Popova has no difficulty keeping the vow she has made (that her husband never asked for); when Luka begins to pester her about going out and getting on with her life, she is adamant about her commitment mourn for the remainder of her life. And when she first meets Smirnov, she certainly has no difficulty sticking to her promise: he is a raving lunatic!
The "nature of powerful emotions," however, seems closely tied to the "difficulty of keeping resolutions" as Popova's resistance is only broken down as she and Smirnov begin to argue. Her intention is never to turn her back on the devotion she has promised to her husband's memory. However, perhaps Chekov is saying that in the cold light of objectivity, it is easy to remain steadfast regarding decisions or promises we make. It's easy to say we don't want any cake until someone puts the plate of chocolate layer cake before us, and we lose a good measure of our self-control. Popova ends up abandoning her vow—and never even sees it coming: Smirnov has embraced and kissed her before she has barely processed his declaration that he "likes" her (which she is insulted by) and never even gets to consider his claims of "love." His powerful emotion for her overwhelms her promises to forever be true to her husband and to reject Smirnov. I would think that Chekov could tolerate a person's lack of "sound" judgment in the face of tumultuous emotions.
I would imagine, however, that maintaining conventions would be low on his list of societal concerns. A convention, once again, is based on an idea made in a starkly emotionless state, as is the decision to live up to expectations: either one's own or those of another—or even of society. Chekov shows in Popova's dutiful faithfulness to her undeserving husband, a future without hope or joy. It is easy to see that Popova deserves better—even after his death she has a desire to prove her value as a person and devoted wife to a man who has no way of appreciating these things in death—any more than he was capable of doing so in life.
It is only with the arrival of Smirnov that we find she is still capable of strong emotion; it has long been said that there is a thin line between love and hate, as we see with Popova and Smirnov. And social conventions and expectations do not feed the heart or the soul. Both Popova and Smirnov begin the story with nothing but unhappiness ahead of them. By letting their emotions lead them, they find great promise in the days ahead, spent with each other.