Who or what is the protagonist in The Bear by Anton Chekhov?   

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Chekhov's one act play The Bear is a farce comedy that concerns two principle characters. These characters are the widow Elena Ivanovna Papova and Grigory Smirnov, a landowner who pursues Elena for money that she owes him. Both could, in their own way, be considered the protagonists. The stronger case could be made for Elena, given that the play most directly centers around her perspective. Smirnov, however, is the titular "bear," and it is speculated that he is based off of one of Chekhov's childhood friends, to whom the play is dedicated.

Both characters are comical in their complete lack of self awareness and their desperation to appear as more than they actually are. This is evidenced in the ridiculous series of events that unfold, such as the prospect of a duel turning into the two falling in love.

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The protagonist of The Bear is the widow Elena Ivanovna Popova, who has vowed to always mourn her husband.

Elena Popova is a “landowning little widow” whose husband died six months before the play opens.  The play, a vaudeville-like comedy, centers around her reaction to his death.  She has agreed the mourn him and be devoted to his memory, so she will never leave the house.

Elena’s mourning is interrupted by Grigory Smirnov, “a middle-aged landowner,” who says that Elena’s late husband owed him money.  Smirnov is angry, comically so, when she says she cannot pay him because she has no money until her steward returns. 

Do you think I can fly away from my creditors in a balloon, or what? Or do you expect me to go and run my head into a brick wall? 

She frustrates him so much that he eventually challenges her to a duel, which she accepts.  What follows is a silly chain of events that ends, of course, with them falling in love with each other.

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