Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1108
Astrov, the doctor, calls to attend the retired Professor Serebryakov, who complained all night of pains in his legs. To the doctor’s annoyance, the professor leaves for a long walk with his wife, Yelena, and his daughter, Sonya. Astrov tells the old nurse, Marina, that he is so overworked he feels a hundred years old. He also feels that, having worked with weak, discontented people for years, he became as strange as they. Caring for nothing and no one, he wonders if people living a hundred years hence will remember men like him who struggled to beat out the road for them.
Marina explains that the professor completely changed the routine of the house, so that everyone waits on him and routine work is fitted in where possible. Ivan Voynitsky enviously describes the fortunate life the professor has. The professor lives on the estate of his first wife, whose mother dotes on his every word. He is retired now and writing as he pleases; he has a new and beautiful young wife to cater to him. It is, however, Ivan, Sonya’s Uncle Vanya, who blindly follows his mother’s ideals and makes the estate a splendidly productive place that can supply all the professor’s needs. Only recently did Ivan realize how selfish the professor is. Ivan tells his mother that he can no longer bear to hear of the pamphlets that were her life for the last fifty years.
When the professor comes in, he immediately excuses himself to return to his writing. Yelena, apologizing to the doctor, says that her husband is well again. Both Ivan and the doctor admire her extravagantly, and the doctor invites her and Sonya to come to his estate to see his trees. A crank on the subject of trees, the doctor wants to restore the countryside to its state before the peasants indiscriminately cut down the forests. Yelena realizes Sonya is attracted to the doctor. Yelena is bored with everything, even Ivan’s love for her.
When the professor again complains of pains in his legs, he keeps his wife awake for two nights. Believing that he earned the right to be disagreeable and tyrannical at his age, and feeling that he is in a vault with stupid people who make foolish conversation, he refuses to see the doctor he summoned. He begs not to be left with Ivan, who will talk him to death. Only Marina seems to be able to handle him; she leads him away so that the others can rest.
Yelena asks Ivan to try to reconcile everyone. When Ivan declares his love to her again, she leaves him. Ivan realizes he could have fallen in love with her ten years before and might even have married her if he had not been wrapped up in the ideal of fulfilling the professor’s wishes. He feels cheated in the realization that the retired professor is a nonentity.
Ivan and the doctor continue the drinking they start while the doctor waits to see the professor. Sonya asks them both to stop, Ivan because he is living on illusions, the doctor because she does not want him to destroy himself. She tries to tell him obliquely that she loves him, but he feels that his reactions are blunted. He will never be able to love anyone, though Yelena might be able to turn his head.
Yelena and Sonya effect a reconciliation when Yelena explains that she married Sonya’s father in the belief that she loved him, only to find she was in love with an ideal. Having lost that illusion, she finds herself very...
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unhappy. Sonya, glad to make friends with her, is happy about everything; she speaks at last to the doctor, even if he does not understand her.
While waiting for the hour at which the professor asks all the family to join him, Yelena complains of being bored. Sonya suggests that she help on the estate. When Yelena declines all suggestions, Ivan tells her she is too indolent to do anything. To make matters worse, her indolence is catching, for he stopped work to follow her, as did Sonya and the doctor, who used to come once a month but now comes daily. Since Yelena seems to have mermaid blood in her veins, he says, she should let herself go for once and fall in love with a water sprite. Yelena is indignant. Ivan, as a peace offering, goes to get her some autumn roses.
Sonya asks Yelena’s help. She knows the doctor comes to see Yelena, not even realizing Sonya is there. Yelena decides to speak to him in Sonya’s behalf. When she does, he laughs at her for pretending she does not know why he comes. Then he kisses her. Yelena halfheartedly holds him off until she sees Ivan returning with the roses.
The professor, not content with country living but unable to live in the city on the income from the estate, suggests that they sell the estate, invest most of the money, and buy a small place in Finland with the remainder. His plan is greeted with horror, particularly by Ivan, who is driven almost mad as he feels the estate slipping away from Sonya, the work of twenty-five years undone. He explains how the estate was bought for Sonya’s mother and handed on to Sonya; how he paid off the mortgage and made the place productive; how Sonya and he slaved on the property by day and over books by night with only the professor in mind. Feeling cheated, he rushes away while the professor declares that he can no longer live under the same roof with Ivan. Yelena begs him to leave the place immediately, but to apologize to Ivan before they leave. When the professor tries to make amends, Ivan shoots at him twice, missing both times.
Marina, pleased with the arrangement, hopes that matters will settle down after the professor and his wife leave. Astrov refuses to go home before Ivan gives back the morphia he took from the doctor’s bag. Ivan, saying he is a madman, begs for a way out, but the doctor laughs and says that the two of them, the only well-educated men in the district, are swamped in the trivialities of country life and that they are both eccentric, a very normal human condition. After reconciliations all around, the professor and Yelena leave, followed by Astrov. Marina rocks away with satisfaction, Ivan’s mother goes back to her pamphlets, and Sonya assures Ivan that they completed their lives’ work and will find rest in heaven.