Ivanov Themes

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.


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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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 characters seem to revolve around whether they pull an ace. This is emblematic of the abundant leisure these characters enjoy, which they fill with endless...

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games and parties.

Although not stated outright, it is possible that the preponderance of leisure contributes to Ivanov’s sense of ennui and melancholy, with empty evenings contributing to his deteriorating mental state. Lvov, a busy doctor, is shown to be much more mentally stable, and he is driven by a sense of purpose. With excess leisure and elevated social status comes the pressure of maintaining the appearance of wealth, as is seen in the case of Ivanov, who has a huge estate but is under heavy debt.

The pressure to hold on to the social currency of wealth is often realized through marriage, as seen in the case of the wealthy widow Martha Babakina. Significantly, Borkin engineers the malleable Shabelski’s marriage of convenience to Babakina so that he himself can profit from it. In this era, a woman’s estate became her husband’s after marriage; the link between marriott and a woman’s fortune is so tight that it is suggested that Ivanov married Anna for her money and lost his love for her when she was disowned by her parents. Further, Lvov suggests that the financially imperiled Ivanov is marrying Sasha, too, for money.

Thus, the text cynically dismantles the fallacy of equivalence between marriage and love, an impression further reinforced by the depiction of marriages in the play. Though Ivanov was once madly in love with Anna, five years of marriage have undone his affection. Lebedev is “dominated” by his rich but miserly wife Zinaida. Ivanov’s love for Sasha is idealized, but only when it exists independent of marriage. The day of their wedding, Ivanov realizes he is harming Sasha by marrying her and attempts to call off their marriage. Thus, the text appears to suggest that marriage constrains love and sometimes occurs with motivations other than love.

The Effects of Melancholy

Though Anna suffers physically, it is Ivanov’s mental struggles which drive much of the plot. Ivanov describes his “melancholy” (a state which would later be known as depression) at the end of the play, explaining,

I carry my sadness with me wherever I go; a cold weariness, a discontent, a horror of life. Yes, I am lost for ever and ever. Before you stands a man who at thirty-five is disillusioned, wearied by fruitless efforts, burning with shame, and mocking at his own weakness.

Ivanov’s self-loathing and inability to act are characteristic of the cyclic nature of clinical depression, and his suicide at the end is, at least partially, the consequence of his mental illness. Additionally, Ivanov’s melancholy has a detrimental effect on his relationship with others—most notably Anna. Though he recognizes that the fact that he spends all his evenings away from home is an “injustice” to her, as they used to spend the evenings together, Ivanov insists on going to the Lebedevs’ at night because his melancholy “drives him” there. Additionally, Ivanov reveals the effect his melancholy has had on his love for Anna when he states,

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.

Ivanov recognizes after Anna’s death the extent of the effect of his melancholy on Anna when he says, “My melancholy robbed my wife of the last year of her life.” Here, he admits that his depressive state contributed to his neglect of her as she was dying, which likely quickened her death. Realizing that he is being unfair to Sasha by marrying her when he knows his depression will take a toll on her, Ivanov attempts to convince her to call off their wedding: he insists, “I have no right to drag another down with me.” In the end, Ivanov loses all hope of recovering from his state, referring to himself as “lost,” and commits suicide. In all of this, Ivanov demonstrates the detrimental effects of melancholy on the lives of those who suffer from it, as well as those around them.