Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497
Alexander Serebrakov (ah-lehk-SAHN-dr seh-reh-brah-KOHF), a retired professor who takes up residence with his young wife at their small estate in the country. After many years of writing books about art, his life is deemed a failure. Success and fame have eluded him; he is a gout-ridden, whining, testy, and complaining old man incapable of generosity or kindness. Presumptuous and full of self-conceit, he is a trial to all those around him.
Helena Andreyevna (eh-LEH-nuh ahn-DRAY-ehv-nuh), the professor’s beautiful young wife. Disillusioned by her husband, whom she married in the belief that he was famous and learned, she spends her life in idleness and indolence, infecting those about her with her absence of direction and values. She holds a fascination for men, but in doting on her, they themselves are corrupted. She remains true to her husband but in the process destroys her own spirit.
Sonya Alexandrovna (SOH-nyuh ah-lehk-SAHN-drehv-nuh), the professor’s daughter by a previous marriage, an innocent, plain young woman hopelessly in love with the local physician, who does not return her love. She learns to endure her pain by helping others, by work, and by a deep faith in a better afterlife.
Ivan Voitski (ih-VAHN VOYT-skih), called Vanya (VAH-nyuh), the brother of Serebrakov’s first wife and manager of his country estate. After having worked diligently for the professor for years, editing and translating his manuscripts, caring for his business affairs, and making it possible for him to lead a comfortable life, Vanya discovers that the professor is a fraud, that his own sacrifice has been for nothing, and that he has lost a lifetime. Despairing over his false trust in the professor and his unrequited love for Helena, he unsuccessfully attempts to kill his brother-in-law. At the end of the play, knowing that he can find no new life, Vanya mechanically works over the account books while trying to endure the life remaining to him.
Mihail Astrov (mih-hah-IHL ahs-TROHF), the local physician, overworked and discouraged by the tediousness of human existence. Claiming to be a misanthrope, he nevertheless falls in love with Helena and lets his practice and estate fall into ruin. Helena, because of her affection for him, takes her husband and leaves the country. Astrov remains to reassume his old life. The most intelligent and visionary of the characters, he sees his own life only as preparation for the better life of future generations.
Marya Voitskaya (MAHR-yuh VOYT-skah-yuh), the widowed mother of Vanya and of the professor’s first wife. Obsessed with the emancipation of women, she spends her life reading revolutionary pamphlets and dreaming about the dawn of a new life.
Ilia Telegin (ih-LYAH teh-LEH-gihn), called Waffles because of his pockmarked face, an impoverished landowner. He is sentimental, obsequious, and simpleminded.
Marina (mah-RIH-nuh), an old family nurse. Representing the traditional ways of an older generation, she kindly offers tea or vodka to console any suffering.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1029
Sonya is Serebryakov’s daughter by his first marriage and Vanya’s niece. Hard-working and plain in appearance, Sonya is twenty-four and has been in love with Astrov for six years. When Yelena offers to ask Astrov about his feelings for Sonya, she wavers, saying, ‘‘Uncertainty is better. . . . After all, there is hope—’’ Like the others, Sonya confesses to deep unhappiness but is more pragmatic. It is Sonya who holds the family together. When Vanya complains of how heavy his burdens are, she says: ‘‘What can we do, we must live!’’ The play closes with her soliloquy about the value of hard work in this lifetime and rest and beauty in the next.
A twenty-seven-year-old beauty and charmer, Yelena is married to the already elderly professor Serebryakov. Like her namesake Helen of Troy, Yelena is a woman whose beauty stirs men to action though she herself suffers from inertia. She freely admits that she’s idle and bored, and she believes that any type of useful activity, such as nursing or teaching, is beyond her. Astrov jokes, ‘‘Both of you, he [Serebryakov] and you—infected us with your idleness.’’ Yelena admits that she married out of true feeling, but that she no longer loves her husband and is now very unhappy. She dismisses Vanya’s affections but is clearly attracted to Astrov. Directors disagree about Yelena’s character. Sometimes she is portrayed as beautiful and vapid, flirtatious and cruel. Others see her as a vibrant life force that woos men away from their goals and therefore brings about their unintentional destruction, an idea that’s supported by Astrov’s statement, ‘‘It’s strange how I am convinced that if you should stay on, there would be an enormous devastation.’’
Dr. Mikhail Lvovich Astrov
As Act I opens, Astrov, the village doctor, is lamenting that he’s grown old and has not had a single day off in more than ten years. At times, Astrov appears to be close to desperation: ‘‘I work harder than anyone in the district, fate strikes me one blow after another and there are times when I suffer unbearably—but for me there is no light shining in the distance.’’ In addition to his other frustrations, Astrov is haunted by the death of one of his patients, a railroad switchman, who died of typhus under his care. Yelena describes Astrov as having a tired, nervous, interesting face; he is a vegetarian who’s passionate about nature and interested in the conservation of the woods, but he also drinks heavily and is curiously oblivious to Sonya’s love for him. Many parallels exist between Vanya and Astrov; both feel beaten down by life, both are attracted to Yelena, and both believe they’ve squandered their talents and are now living lives of vulgarity and frustration.
Professor Alexander Vladimirovich Serebryakov
A retired professor who was regarded as a Don Juan in his younger days, Serebryakov is now married to the beautiful Yelena Andreevna. Serebryakov is Sonya’s father and was married to Vanya’s sister, Vera, who has since died. The professor has settled on the estate of his first wife because he can’t afford to live anywhere else. Vanya criticizes him for striding around like a god, yet having achieved nothing of significance in his field (art history). Serebryakov is idolized by his mother-in-law, Maria, but Vanya despises him, having come to view him as an old fraud who’s sapped everyone of their vitality. Serebryakov sets off a firestorm by suggesting that the estate, which belongs to Sonya, be sold so that he and Yelena can buy a villa in Finland.
See Sofia Alexandrovna
Ilya Ilich Telegin
An impoverished landowner, Telegin lives on the estate and dines regularly with the family. Chekhov describes his speech as high-pitched and pretentious. Nicknamed ‘‘Waffles’’ because of his pockmarked face, Telegin argues for faithfulness, describing how his wife left him the day after their wedding because of his appearance, yet he remained loyal to her, supporting the children she had with her lover.
Chekhov describes Marina, the old nurse, as a plain, small woman; she is a soothing presence among the frustrated, lovelorn, and angry characters on the estate. Overtly nurturing, she is often associated with food or drink (‘‘A cup of lime-flower tea or tea with raspberry jam and it will all pass,’’ she says in an attempt to console Sonya).
The Uncle Vanya of the title, Voynitsky is forty-seven years old, stylishly dressed, and yawning when he first appears in Act I. A year before the play opens, he realized that he’d wasted his life by working to support the professor, whose great genius turned out to have been illusory. Vanya is in love with Yelena, whom he urges to take better advantage of her youth than he did. Discontented and angry, Vanya is derailed by his own impotence and anger; he continually makes nasty jabs at Serebryakov. After months of grumbling, Vanya erupts into violence when the professor proposes that the estate be sold so that he and Yelena can purchase a villa in Finland. Vanya shoots at the professor but misses. Having wasted his talents and squandered his life, Voynitsky has become a peripheral figure who supports his sister’s family, rather than living his own life. Even his designation in the title of the play—he’s known as someone else’s uncle—suggests how far from the center of the action his life is lived.
Maria Vasilevna Voinitskaya
Maria Vasilevna is the widow of a privy councillor, Vanya’s mother, and Serebryakov’s mother-in-law. A liberal with an unwavering commitment to women’s rights, she adores the professor and is content to spend her life furthering his work. As Vanya describes her: ‘‘My old magpie Maman is still babbling about the emancipation of women; with one eye she looks into the grave and with the other she rummages through her learned books for the dawn of a new life.’’ Throughout most of the play, Maria reads or writes without looking up, lost in thought.
Ivan Petrovich Voynitsky
See Uncle Vanya
See Ilya Ilich Telegin
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