Places Discussed

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*Ukraine. Russian province (now an independent country) that borders the north coast of the Black Sea. The relationship between Vanya and Professor Serebriakóv mirrors the relationship between provincial Ukraine and Russia. During Chekhov’s lifetime and well into the twentieth century, Russia exploited Ukraine’s rich agricultural and natural resources to feed and fuel other regions and provinces. Similarly, Professor Serebriakóv exploits the labor of Vanya and Sónya in order to maintain his life and career in Moscow.

Serebriakóv farm

Serebriakóv farm. Farm in Ukraine from which Serebriakóv derives the wealth on which he has built his social position in Moscow. Chekhov provides an increasingly intimate portrait of the Serebriakóv family and the forces that begin to erode the relationships between family members as each act penetrates deeper into the family’s history and deeper into the interior of the farm. A crisis between Vanya and the professor divides the household. In the play’s second act, Yelena says that there is “something terribly wrong going on in this house.” As tensions grow stronger among the characters, the farm becomes a microcosm of society in general. “You know perfectly well it’s not crime and criminals that are destroying the world,” Yelena explains to Vanya in the second act. “It’s petty little emotions like envy . . . that end up with good people hating one another.”


Garden. Garden adjacent to the farmhouse and just off the veranda. Gardens, and natural settings in general, are common elements in Chekhov’s drama as symbols of the order and beauty of the natural world, providing contrasts to the chaotic lives of his characters. The garden in the play’s first act sets the changing lives of the Serebriakóv family against the passive uniformity of nature and suggests an imbalance among family members. Sonya’s defense of Ástrov’s passion for reforestation emphasizes this imbalance when she explains that people who live in lush natural settings “spend less energy trying to combat nature, so the people themselves are kinder and gentler.”

Historical Context

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In 1861, one year after Chekhov was born, Czar Alexander II abolished serfdom in Russia. Serfs were essentially slaves and were forced to work for their owners unless they could purchase their own freedom. Once peasants were no longer owned by others, they were not necessarily free because most of them had no possessions and were enslaved through indebtedness. In the 1860s, peasants constituted eighty percent of the population of Russia.

Once serfdom was abolished, Russia underwent a period of social unrest, characterized by student rebellion and protests by political radicals. In 1872, Karl Marx’s Das Kapital was translated into Russian and the Russian people were introduced to the basic tenets of communism. In 1881, Czar Alexander II was assassinated by terrorists. Alexander III assumed rule of the country, and what followed was a time of mass arrests and deportations. Alexander III ruled until his death in 1894, when Czar Nicholas assumed power.

Although Chekhov’s plays and stories aren’t overtly political, the writer was the grandson of a serf and throughout his lifetime he came into frequent contact with the peasants and other povertystricken members of Russian society because of his work as a physician. In 1890, Chekhov visited the prison of Sakhalin, to care for the sick and record the conditions of the prisoners. Despite an awareness of the plight of others, Chekhov was not among the university radicals or dissidents who pressed for reform through public demonstrations. The peasants may play prominent roles in his work, but Chekhov was not an artist...

(This entire section contains 668 words.)

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who was particularly concerned with politics.

The narrowness, vulgarity, and isolation of life in Russia are part of the fabric of the characters’ lives. Astrov says, ‘‘I’m fond of life as a whole, but this petty, provincial life of ours in Russia—that I can’t stand, I despise it utterly.’’ What Chekhov takes exception to is the spiritual bankruptcy of life in Russia, more than the corruptness of the country’s politics. Harvey Pitcher pointed out in The Chekhov Play that the plight of the Russian intelligentsia was hardly an original subject when Chekhov embraced it. In fact, the talented man for whom there’s no place in society was already a literary cliche by the time Chekhov wrote his plays.

In Uncle Vanya Chekhov is concerned with class distinctions. Marina, the old nurse, is a sterling character, and she is the only individual on the estate who seems truly at peace. Characters like Astrov are ground down by hard work and poor conditions; their freedom is curtailed by the sudden demands of well-to-do hypochondriacs like Serebryakov, who capriciously summons Astrov and then refuses to see him. Vanya’s charges against Serebryakov center around the sacrifices of time and effort he’s made, but he’s also aggrieved by the poor wages he’s earned. ‘‘For twenty-five years,’’ says Vanya, ‘‘I have managed this estate, worked, sent you money, like a most conscientious clerk, and during all that time you not once thanked me. All the time—both in my youth and now—you paid me five hundred roubles a year for wages—fit for a beggar—and you never once thought of increasing it by even one rouble!’’

Artistically, Chekhov was also a man of his times. A proponent of realism, he pays careful attention to how people actually act or live, not to some highly subjective or romantic vision of life. Thus, some of the finest dialogue of Uncle Vanya closely resembles real conversations, where individuals talk at cross purposes or misinterpret one another. For instance, when Sonya confesses her love for Astrov to Yelena, Yelena praises the doctor for his industry and bravery, but then begins to speak of her own feelings: ‘‘There’s no happiness for me in this world.’’ Instead of responding to her heartfelt admission, Sonya laughs from pleasure at her recent conversation with the doctor: ‘‘I am so happy . . . so happy!’’ she exclaims. In his realism, Chekhov is akin to other great nineteenth-century writers like George Eliot

Literary Style

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One way to understand the construction of Uncle Vanya is to contrast it with its earlier incarnation, The Wood Demon. Eric Bentley, in Critical Essays on Anton Chekhov, called The Wood Demon ‘‘a farce spiced with melodrama.’’ In that version, Chekhov emphasizes the romantic interests of the characters and the play concludes with the coupling of Astrov and Sonya. No one is successfully paired up in Uncle Vanya. In The Wood Demon Vanya commits suicide. In Uncle Vanya Vanya survives only to have his bleakest fears about life confirmed. Wrote Bentley: ‘‘To the Broadway script-writer, also concerned with the rewriting of plays (especially if in an early version a likable character shoots himself), these alterations of Chekhov’s would presumably seem unaccountable. They would look like a deliberate elimination of the dramatic element.’’ Uncle Vanya is constructed in a purposefully unconventional way, one that illustrates certain ideas about how individuals bear up and continue to live in the midst of considerable suffering.

SettingUncle Vanya is set entirely within Serebryakov’s estate. Although the play opens in the garden behind the estate, most of the action takes place inside the rambling, twenty-six-room estate that Vanya and Sonya have managed and Sonya presumably owns. Many of the characters find the atmosphere stifling. Yelena describes the house as a crypt, a place of exile, and later, as hell, while Serebryakov says he feels like he’s ‘‘fallen from the earth on to some foreign planet’’ and he calls the estate ‘‘a labyrinth’’ and ‘‘a morgue.’’ Vanya describes the monastic life he’s lived, working inside the estate to further Serebryakov’s career, as sitting ‘‘like a mole inside these four walls,’’ and Astrov says he couldn’t survive a month in the house, ‘‘I’d suffocate in this air.’’ The setting is intentionally static and claustrophobic. One of the hallmarks of a Chekhov play is that it takes place within a single setting. The fact that every scene takes place on the estate heightens the sense of desolation and futility experienced by the characters.

Point of View
One of Chekhov’s innovations was to write plays without a single clear hero or heroine. In Uncle Vanya and Chekhov’s other major plays, several characters are of nearly equal dramatic stature. Here, Vanya, Astrov, Sonya, and Yelena are the main characters and each experiences similar frustrations. The audience comes to understand each of the four characters’ unique point of view through his or her speeches when alone and the confidences he or she shares with the other characters.

Realism is an artistic movement in which authors or artists attempted to depict human beings as they actually appear in life. Begun in the 1840s in Europe and Russia, realism was a response to the highly subjective art and literature produced by the Romantic movement. Chekhov—a preeminent realist— builds up a sense of character through physical description in his stage directions and through the characters’ descriptions of one another. His characters are not larger than life but have recognizable foibles. Marina is a realist heroine; she clucks at the chickens and offers tea to the characters at inappropriate moments. Vanya also appears realistically— rather than a dignified, dramatic entrance, he makes his first appearance yawning. And Serebryakov complains of mundane matters like gout and other aches and pains.

Compare and Contrast

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1897: Marxist Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov is exiled to Siberia for three years for smuggling illegal literature from Europe into Russia, organizing strikes, and printing anti-government leaflets and manifestoes. Ulyanov was the older brother of Lenin, the father of Russia’s communist revolution.

Today: Soviet president Boris Yeltsin regularly meets with world leaders, including U. S. President Bill Clinton, to exchange ideas.

1897: Regard for conservation of natural resources is low, with most not considering the impact of the vast depletion of forests. In Uncle Vanya, Astrov is concerned with the devastation of the forests. He proposes that instead of wood, peat could be used for heat and stones for building houses.

Today: Conservation of natural resources is a primary concern. About 655 million acres—or approximately 29% of the land area of the United States—has been designated forestland and is under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of Agriculture. The state with the largest national forest area is Alaska (22.2 million acres), followed by California (20.6 million acres).

1897: In Uncle Vanya Sonya and Vanya become distracted by the arrival of Serebryakov and Yelena, allowing the crops to remain untended. Food shortages are a regular occurrence in Europe and Russia. In 1891 and 1892, Russia was crippled by famine after the country’s crops failed. Millions were reduced to starvation and the rural peasants raided towns looking for food. The famine was partially relieved by a shipment of some three million barrels of flour from the United States.

Today: Each year, the United States produces approximately 59.5 million metric tons of wheat, 7.9 million metric tons of rice, and 187 million metric tons of corn. In 1995, the U. S. exported $55.8 billion worth of agricultural products.

1897: Money is an important theme in Uncle Vanya. In Russia, Finance Minister Sergei Yulievich Witte introduces the gold standard. World gold production reaches nearly 11.5 million ounces, up from 5 to 6 million ounces per year between 1860 and 1890.

Today: The U.S. produced roughly 320 metric tons of gold in 1995.

1897: In Uncle Vanya Astrov is haunted by the death of one of his patients from typhus. In 1854, an epidemic of typhus devastated the Russian army, and the disease continues to be a threat throughout the century.

Today: Typhus is no longer a problem; in 1930, Harvard bacteriology professor Hans Zinsser— with help from John Franklin Enders of Children’s Hospital, Boston—developed the first antityphus vaccine. Today, AIDS is the most serious epidemic in the U. S. and other industrialized nations. By 1995, more than half a million people had died of AIDS.

Media Adaptations

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In 1994, Louis Malle directed a film version of Uncle Vanya, entitled Vanya on 42nd Street. The film takes an usual approach to Chekhov’s text in that it portrays a theatre company rehearsing the play for production. The lives of the actors mirror the action within the playwright’s script. Playwright David Mamet (Speed the Plow) wrote the adaptation of the play, Grammy nominee Joshua Redman created the jazz score, and Julianne Moore, Wallace Shawn (as Vanya), and Andre Gregory starred in the production.

In 1962, Stuart Burge filmed and directed a film adaptation of Uncle Vanya, which starred Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright, Rosemary Harris, and Michael Redgrave. The onstage version of the play was directed by Olivier at the Chichester Drama Festival.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Bentley, Eric. ‘‘Craftsmanship in Uncle Vanya’’ in Critical Essays on Anton Chekhov, G. K. Hall, 1989, pp. 169-85.

Eekman, Thomas A. Introduction to Critical Essays on Anton Chekhov, G. K. Hall, 1989, pp. 1-7.

Nabokov, Vladimir. ‘‘Chekhov’s Prose’’ in Critical Essays on Anton Chekhov, G. K. Hall, 1989, pp. 26-33.

Pitcher, Harvey. The Chekhov Play, University of California Press, 1985.

Timmer, Charles B. ‘‘The Bizarre Element in Chekhov’s Art’’ in Anton Chekhov’s Plays, W. W. Norton, 1977, pp. 272-85.

Further Reading
Bordinat, Philip. ‘‘Dramatic Structure in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya ’’ in Chekhov’s Great Plays, New York University Press, 1981, pp. 47-60. A discussion of how Chekhov’s plays are structured.

Gilman, Richard. Chekhov’s Plays: An Opening into Eternity, Yale University Press, 1997. An examination of each of Chekhov’s full-length plays, placing them in the context of Russian and European drama and of the artist’s own life.

Koteliansky, S. S., editor and translator. Anton Tchekhov: Literary and Theatrical Reminiscences, Benjamin Blom, 1965. A collection of literary and theatrical reminiscences of Chekhov from writers Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky and from directors V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavsky, as well as excerpts from Chekhov’s diary.

Magarshack, David. ‘‘Purpose and Structure in Chekhov’s Plays’’ in Anton Chekhov’s Plays, W. W. Norton, 1977, pp. 259-71. An essay that discusses how Chekhov’s plays were interpreted by the Moscow Art Theater and how his plays are constructed.

Melchinger, Siegfried. Anton Chekhov, Frederick Ungar, 1972. This book provides a biographical essay and discussions of all Chekhov’s major plays.

Rayfield, Donald. Anton Chekhov: A Life, Henry Holt, 1998. A well-structured and comprehensive biography of the writer. Rayfield is a noted Chekhov scholar.

Vitins, Ieva. ‘‘Uncle Vanya’s Predicament’’ in Chekhov’s Great Plays, New York University Press, 1981, pp. 35-46. An essay on Uncle Vanya.


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Bentley, Eric. “Craftsmanship in Uncle Vanya.” In Anton Chekhov’s Plays, translated and edited by Eugene K. Bristow. New York: Norton, 1977. Bentley shows that Chekhov’s naturalism in Uncle Vanya is grounded in his mature psychological vision that life has no real endings.

Bordinat, Philip. “Dramatic Structure in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.” In Chekhov’s Great Plays: A Critical Anthology, edited with an introduction by Jean-Pierre Barricelli. New York: New York University Press, 1981. Bordinat argues that Uncle Vanya follows classical dramatic construction if the protagonist is seen as “the individual” embodied in the four major characters. The conflict then becomes the individual’s desire for happiness in the face of the provincial Russian “wasteland.”

Melchinger, Siegfried. “The Wood Demon and Uncle Vanya.” In Anton Chekhov, translated by Edith Tarcov. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1972. Melchinger analyzes how Chekhov reworked his unsuccessful 1889 play, The Wood Demon (Leshy) into the groundbreaking 1897 Uncle Vanya. He focuses particularly on the parallel situations of Astrov and Vanya in the later play.

Peace, Richard. “Uncle Vanya.” In Chekhov: A Study of the Four Major Plays. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983. Peace focuses on the symbolism of Uncle Vanya and discusses the significance in the play of tea drinking, the forest, the storm, birds and animals, and work.

Yermilov, V. “Uncle Vanya: The Play’s Movement.” In Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Louis Jackson. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967. Discusses the use of musical and weather imagery in the play. Yermilov points out the cyclical movement of the play: The external situation at the end replicates the situation at the beginning, but internally everyone has changed.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide