Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1283

Anger and Hatred
Recognizing that he has wasted his life furthering the professor’s scholarship, Vanya responds in anger, a new and unaccustomed emotion for him. Although Vanya’s displeasure simmers throughout the play, it erupts into violence after Serebryakov announces his plan to sell the estate so that he and Yelena can buy a villa in Finland. Vanya then attempts to shoot the professor, only to miss, emphasizing the futility of his rebellion. Vanya’s full name, Voynitsky, hints at his potential for belligerence (the Russian word for ‘‘war’’ is ‘‘voyna’’).

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Appearances and Reality
Vanya rails against Serebryakov’s intellectual posturing, knowing that the professors’s claims of intelligence are a fraud. ‘‘You were to us a creature of the highest order and your articles we knew by heart,’’ says Vanya. ‘‘But now my eyes are open! I see everything! You write about art, but you understand nothing of art! All your works, that I used to love, are not worth a brass penny! You fooled us!’’ Although some of Vanya’s charges have merit, Chekhov’s message is more complex. Serebryakov is not as bad and false as Vanya makes him out to be, but he is a self-absorbed, sick old man who has come to fear Vanya and his outbursts of indignation.

Choices and Consequences
Vanya’s mother, Maria Vasilyevna, chides her son for railing against his fate, when he’s taken so few steps to change the course of his life. ‘‘It looks as if you are challenging your former convictions,’’ she says to Vanya. ‘‘But they are not guilty, it’s you are guilty. You keep forgetting that a conviction in itself is nothing, it’s a dead letter. . . . You should have been doing something.’’ Serebryakov echoes the same sentiments when he departs, saying, ‘‘One must, ladies and gentlemen, do something.’’ Although his remarks are ironic given his own barren efforts, they also contain some element of truth.

Deception
Vanya claims that he has been deceived by Serebryakov, but Chekhov also suggests that Vanya has deceived himself. After all, if Vanya has read the professor’s articles for twenty-five years, why does it take him so long to notice that the professor’s scholarship is empty and the man is ‘‘a soap bubble’’? In many scenes, Vanya deceives himself. When Vanya exhorts Yelena to have an affair, he is, in part, motivated by self interest. He says, ‘‘Faithfulness like this is false from beginning to end; it has a fine sound but no logic.’’ One could argue that the case Vanya makes for adultery is equally suspect.

Duty and Responsibility
Work is one of the major themes of Uncle Vanya. Vanya, Sonya, and Astrov all complain that Yelena’s idleness has infected them, luring them from their responsibilities to loaf with her. When Sonya suggests that Yelena work, she responds: ‘‘It is only in sociological novels they teach and cure sick peasants, and how can I suddenly for no reason go to curing and teaching them?’’ Sonya answers: ‘‘And in the same way I don’t understand how not to go and not to teach.’’ Chekhov may be critiquing idleness, but he also takes a dim view of meaningless work: Serebryakov’s empty efforts at intellect provide an excuse for him to be demanding and pompous; and Maria Vasilyevna’s work is a form of escapism, allowing her to shut out the emotional needs of her family.

Human Condition
Throughout his plays, Chekhov is concerned with the human condition and how people endure great unhappiness and personal frustration. Many of the sorrows the characters experience are inevitable. When Astrov says goodbye to Yelena, the farewell is tinged by an awareness that human life is sad: ‘‘It’s odd somehow,’’ he says, ‘‘We have known each other, and suddenly for some reason— we will never see each other again. And that’s how it is in this world.’’ The clearest evocation of how the frustrations of the characters are simply part of the human condition comes in Sonya’s final speech. ‘‘What can we do,’’ she says, ‘‘we must live!. . . We’ll live through a long, long line of days, endless evenings; we’ll bear patiently the trials fate sends us; we’ll work for others now and in our old age without ever knowing any rest, and when our hour comes, we’ll die humbly.’’

Limitations and Opportunities
Vanya sees his life as circumscribed by the sacrifices he made for the professor. In a rage, he shouts, ‘‘I’m gifted, intelligent, courageous. If I’d had a normal life I might have been a Schopenhauer or a Dostoyevsky.’’ However, even Vanya recognizes that his own possibilities may not have been so great as he sometimes claims. When his mother laments that Vanya was once a man of strong convictions and a bright personality, he responds sarcastically, ‘‘Oh, yes! I used to be a bright personality that didn’t give light to anybody.’’

Love and Passion
Vanya and Astrov both adore Yelena, Yelena is captivated by Astrov, and Sonya is in love with Astrov. Sonya tells Yelena: ‘‘I have loved him now for six years, loved him more than my own mother; every minute I hear his voice, feel the touch of his hand; and I watch the door, waiting; it always seems to me that he will be coming in.’’ Passion in Uncle Vanya seems like an avenue for suffering, not salvation. Yelena attributes her great unhappiness to having been mistaken in her love for Serebryakov. She also compares love for a woman to the reckless devastation of the woods and criticizes men for possessing ‘‘the demon of destruction’’ in their dealings with the opposite sex.

Return to Nature
Astrov speaks eloquently of the beauty of the woods, and his love of nature is one reason why Sonya and Yelena are drawn to him. Passionate about the need to conserve forests, he says that the woods are being destroyed ‘‘because lazy man hasn’t sense enough to bend down and pick up fuel from the ground.’’ Astrov also laments, ‘‘Forests are fewer and fewer, rivers dry up, game becomes extinct, the climate is ruined, and every day the earth gets poorer and uglier.’’ Man’s wanton destruction of nature has parallels to the unhappiness of the members of Serebryakov’s family, who feel their lives are unfulfilled and ruined. Astrov says, ‘‘He must be a reckless barbarian to burn this beauty in his stove, destroy what we cannot create again.’’

Success and Failure
The dramatic action of Uncle Vanya occurs within a few months time, when Voynitsky stops accepting a secondary role in life, as family provider, uncle, and dutiful son, and instead rails against the injustices of his life. For Vanya, the recognition of personal failure briefly spurs him to declare his love for Yelena, to assert his frustration, and to draw attention to Serebryakov’s sense of unbridled entitlement. However, Vanya is doomed to fail, even as he fails in his attempt to avenge himself and murder Serebryakov.

Wealth and Poverty
Money matters in Uncle Vanya. Serebryakov and Yelena are staying at the estate because they can’t afford to live elsewhere; Telegin dines with the family because he is too impoverished to have his own home. Most importantly, it is Serebryakov’s proposal to sell the estate and convert the proceeds into interest-bearing paper that sets off Vanya’s wrath. The dramatic climax of Uncle Vanya, when Vanya confronts Serebryakov, consists of an accounting of debts, past and present. Among Vanya’s grievances is the pittance he’s been paid, wages ‘‘fit for a beggar.’’ Wealth has been squandered, as well as youth and time.

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Characters