The main themes in Ivanov include honesty and self-awareness, love, marriage, and class, and the effects of melancholy.
- Honesty and self-awareness: The characters of Ivanov and Lvov demonstrate that when honesty and self-awareness are left untempered, they can have devastating results.
- Love, marriage, and class: Various couples in the play appear to lack love, and socioeconomic class plays a significant role in marriage.
- The effects of melancholy: Ivanov’s depressive state negatively impacts his life, the lives of others, and his relationship with several characters.
Honesty and Self-Awareness
One of the most notable themes in Ivanov is the occasionally harmful effects of truth and self-awareness; this is highlighted through the contrasting characters of Lvov and Ivanov.
Unlike Ivanov, Lvov is presented as an ethical, upright man who prides himself on his honesty. Having shrewdly assessed both Anna’s condition and the state of her marriage to Ivanov, Lvov often speaks in a brutally honest manner with Ivanov, as when he tells him,
The best cure for consumption is absolute peace of mind, and your wife has none whatever. She is forever excited by your behaviour to her. Forgive me, I am excited and am going to speak frankly. Your treatment of her is killing her.
Unimpeachable as Lvov’s conduct is, the text positions him as a man more self-righteous than correct. Even Anna, whom Lvov unfailingly champions, notes that Lvov’s pursuit of honesty keeps him from exploring the complete, complex truth:
You say that Nicholas is not what he should be, that his faults are so and so. How can you possibly understand him? How can you learn to know any one in six months?
Perhaps the weakest aspect of Lvov’s honesty is that it is not useful to anyone in the play except himself. Though he tells Anna that she is living among “scoundrels,” Anna never considers leaving the Ivanov household; and though he frequently confronts Ivanov about his behaviour, Ivanov doesn’t treat Anna any better. Ironically, the only instance when Lvov is able to help Anna is when he withholds the truth about her condition from her, thus giving her some hope by which to live.
If Lvov cannot stop telling the truth about other people, Ivanov cannot stop telling the truth about himself, which is equally problematic. This behavior often affects other characters, especially Anna—a reality he cannot grasp. When Anna asks him the reason he does not stay home during the evenings, Ivanov gives her a devastatingly cruel reply:
When this melancholy fit is on me I begin to dislike you, Annie, and at such times I must escape from you. In short, I simply have to leave this house.
The worst aspect of Ivanov’s honesty is revealed when he tells Anna at the end of act 3 that she is dying. It is noteworthy that Ivanov’s self-awareness often takes him to the point of paralysis, much like Shakespeare’s overtly subjective protagonist Hamlet, whom Ivanov often references. Like Hamlet, Ivanov’s very interiority keeps him passive and grounded in his own misery.
It is only when Ivanov realizes that acting on his self-awareness is more important than knowing the truth about himself that he decides to rescue Sasha from his depression. Realizing that he is the origin of his own unending melancholy, Ivanov frees Sasha. Because the text cannot resolve the tension between objective and subjective truths, this freedom must come at the cost of a self-destructive action, which is Ivanov’s suicide. The implication is that honesty must always be measured by context, while self-awareness needs to be tempered with the will to change.
Love, Marriage, and Class
Because many of Ivanov ’s characters are part of the Russian gentry of the late nineteenth century, class is an all-pervasive motif in the play. An interesting way that the implications of class play out in the text is through the recurrent motif of card games. Such is the overpowering appeal of these games that the lives of some minor...
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