How does Chekhov use humour and irony in "The Bear"?

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In "The Bear", Chekhov employs humour and irony through the characters' inability to control their emotions despite their protestations. Both Smirnov and Popova, who claim they are done with love, ironically fall for each other. This contradiction, coupled with Smirnov's quick temper and Popova's declaration of being "dead" to the world, create a comedic and ironic tone. The play's humour largely derives from the disparity between words and actions, intentions and reality.

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Much of the humor and irony in "The Bear" comes from how the characters appear to be so enslaved by their emotions despite their loud protestations to the contrary. Both Smirnov and Popova delude themselves into thinking that they can control their emotions, yet it's perfectly clear that they are chronically incapable of doing so. They both claim that they're effectively finished with love, yet ironically they end up falling for each other at the end. Smirnov claims to ignore women as much as he can, yet—also ironically—he's completely captivated by Popova's spirited reaction to his challenging her to a duel. He also finds himself irresistibly drawn to her dimpled cheeks. For her part, Popova claims that she died when her late husband passed away, but it's clear that she still wants to love and to be loved.

Of the two, Smirnov's emotions seem the most volatile and difficult to control, and by extension the most ridiculous. His filthy temper provides much of the play's humor. He's so quick to take offense that he actually challenges Popova to a duel, despite the fact that she's a woman. Smirnov cannot restrain his emotions for any significant length of time; all he can do is exchange one emotion for another. So his declaration of love for Popova comes directly out of his anger towards her for a perceived insult to his honor. This is both humorously farcical and ironic, in keeping with the general tone of the play.

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The central element of humour that lies in this excellent play is the farcical nature that is pointed towards by Chekhov in the subtitle that he gives this play. Of course, the majority of the humour stems from the way in which Mrs. Popov has declared herself to be "dead" even before she has actually died as an act of grief and love towards her dead husband. To demonstrate the depth of her love for her husband, she declares that she will forsake life until she herself joins him in her death. Note how she presents this declaration in scene 1:

When Nicholas died, my life lost all meaning, as you know. You may think I'm alive, but I'm not really. I swore to wear this mourning and shun society till my dying day, do you hear? Let his departed spirit see how I love him!

Thus the stage is set for Mrs. Popov, in spite of her self-confessed intention to remain in mourning and to never love again, to actually fall in love, with the most unlikely character, the "bear" of Smirnov, who, through his brash anger and rudeness, ends the play by kissing Mrs. Popov, obviously foreshadowing their marriage. Thus the central element of the farce of this play lies in the gap between words and actions, intentions and reality.

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