Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 789
Love and Marriage
The many pairings in this play make love a prominent theme—Schaaf and Katya, Liza and Shpigelski, Vera and Bolshintsov, Natalya and Rakitin, Natalya and Beliayev, and Natalya and Islayev. The play is not a glowing portrait of loving, stable marriages or relationships, however. Natalya's toying with Rakitin and Beliayev calls her fidelity into question, while Shpigelski's reasons for marrying hardly seem to be related to love (he mostly seems to desire a trustworthy housekeeper/cook). Marriage as such, becomes an institution or a commitment that either binds and inhibits people's freedom or serves a practical purpose.
In no instance is a loving relationship correlated with a passionate romantic relationship between two people. For example, the match between Shpigelski and Liza does not appear to be based on a mutual romantic affinity, nor does Natalya and Islayev's relationship appear to have the level of respect and commitment that one might characteristically associate with a good marriage. Natalya's feelings for Beliayev hint that a love full of passion and freedom is possible; however, by the end of the play, a happy, fulfilling love relationship seems ultimately unattainable for them.
Apathy and Passivity
The theme of apathy is largely introduced by Natalya's apparent boredom with most everyone and everything except Beliayev. She can't bother to listen to Rakitin when he tries to apologize to her, and she seems unconcerned that her husband will discover her true feelings about the young tutor. In concert with this apathy, much of Natalya's behavior is coupled with an extreme case of passivity. She rarely acts or makes decisions unless she is prodded by others. Even her relationship with Rakitin, though obviously charged, seems to be an unconsummated flirtation. Other characters seem to be haunted by this passivity as well, including Islayev, who, while consoling his mother about Natalya's behavior, seems generally unaffected by what he encounters between his wife and Rakitin.
The theme of greed plays a large part in the development of Shpigelski's character. He is motivated by his greed and his desire to please only himself. It is ironic that he is a doctor; however, his profession serves as a good front for his otherwise undesirable personality. He agrees to help Bolshintsov in his pursuit of Vera, not because he hopes to make a perfect match between two people he cares about, but rather to advance his own concerns. He wants to replace his horse and for assisting with the matchmaking, he will gain not only one horse but a whole team. Shpigelski's self-absorption motivates much of his action, including his courtship of Liza. He finds that his cooks are often thieves and sees that having Liza as his wife would remedy that problem in his life.
Honor is a theme that swirls around many characters in the play including Natalya, Beliayev, Shpigelski, Rakitin, and Islayev. Natalya's honor is at stake because she is willing to engage in extramarital affairs. She questions her own honor in acting on behalf of these urges and consistently wavers on sending Beliayev away or not. Her behavior as Islayev's wife also calls his honor into question. His reputation is at stake and his judgment in choosing Natalya for a wife is up for review, particularly by his mother.
Rakitin's honor is likewise a bit questionable because although he claims to do the proper thing by leaving, he knows that he can return at any time. His honor is also in question because despite the fact that Islayev is his friend, he becomes involved with Natalya. Rakitin redeems himself a bit by being honest with Islayev. Honesty and honor are certainly not qualities that can be associated with Shpigelski, who, although he presents an honorable facade, is actually far from honorable when it comes to his personal relationships.
Coming of Age
Coming of age is a theme that is flushed out by the characters of Vera and Beliayev. Vera is perceived by Natalya as a child in the beginning of the play; however, as the situation develops with Beliayev, Natalya comes to see Vera as much less of a child. Vera's own thoughts on this subject confirm the fact that while Natalya thinks that Vera is a naive child who can be manipulated and tinkered with, she is in fact a mature perceptive woman who is quite aware of Natalya's motives.
In some ways, Beliayev also comes of age during the play, although he is perhaps less self-reflective about it than Vera. As the situation with Natalya unfolds, Beliayev is forced to confront adult love for the first time and as he does this, even Natalya notice the change in him. She says,"he is a man,'' not a boy any longer.