Book #32: Uncle Vanya

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Title: Uncle Vanya
Author: Anton Checkhov
Publication Date: First published 1897
Page Count: 82
Genre: Drama
Why: I am on a play binge.
Quote(s):
1) “Your convictions by themselves are nothing. Like, like, paint in the palette. It’s you should have been working, you, who should have been using them. Doing real work.”
2) “Where could we look to find a simple, unencumbered and spontaneous relation to our fellows, and the world? Where? No where. No where on this earth. I assure you.”
New words/phrases: Samovar, picayune, je ne sais quoi, torpor
Friend(s) who would enjoy this book: Jessica, Kate– you would absolutely love this play!, Tyra (maybe?)
Song(s) in the soundtrack of this book:
1) Cool Night, Paul Davis (Beautiful song, a dream for Uncle Vanya)
2) Broadripple is Burning, Margot & The Nuclear So And So’s
3) Skeleton Key, Margot & The Nuclear So And So’s
4) You’re So Vain, Carly Simon
5) Total Eclipse of The Heart, Bonnie Tyler
6) Boy With a Coin, Iron and Wine

My Thoughts

I have never read a book that is so completely demoralizing. Uncle Vanya is filled with an air of misery and dashed hopes that will cling to the reader long after they have put the book down. This play reveals the worst fears of a human being through languid, haunting dialogue. Unease about living a futile life, loneliness, and a lack of love and happiness are repeatedly emphasized and discussed throughout the play leaving the reader feeling downcast. Do not read this play if you are looking for some kind of ultimate hopefulness or closure, as there is none to find.

Uncle Vanya is a drama set on a small estate in Russia. Uncle Vanya and his niece Sonya have toiled for years on the estate to fund Professor Serebryakov (Vanya’s dead sister’s husband) and his academic exploits. When Serebryakov returns to the estate as a sickly old man with his young and beautiful wife Yelena, relationships quickly turn sour. Each character explores the unhappiness in their own life (including the doctor, Astrov, who is called for Serebryakov) caused either by the others in the house or by external forces.

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One of my favorite things about this play was the portrayal of a cultural landscape. There were plenty of Russian phrases included throughout and the mindset in the estate focused on specific values of being diligent and doing one’s duty that seem to be cultural. A lot of the general wisdom Uncle Vanya imparts to its readers may have been specific to Russia at the time, but is now ominously reminiscent of our own world and the societal problems we face.

“… our world is worsened… not by fires, or robbers… but, you understand? By hate. Our world’s destroyed by hate. By pettiness.

The largest theme in the play is that of a life wasted; the idea that people can live and live to no end, gaining and giving nothing meaningful, and ultimately regretting their idleness as they age.

Age and the toll time takes on a person are cited as reasons for discontentment in life by Uncle Vanya, Professor Serebryakov, and Astrov, who all feel that their strain in labor in their younger days has ended up being useless and has only contributed to the fact that they are old, exhausted, and unable to take back their “golden years”.

Chekhov also deeply explores the idea of living idly. For the months in which the entire family is in the estate, there seems to be a malaise of laziness, best expressed by Sonya in this passage:

“You’re bored. You don’t know what to do. There’s no end to it. I know. It’s so contagious. Uncle Vanya has it, now. And he does nothing. And follows you like a cloud on a leash. I put my own work down and come over to chat. I’ve grown so lazy…”

Even the younger Sonya and Yelena float around the house and dwell on their unhappiness, unable to awaken from this spell of lethargy except for in moments when they imagine their death, which is almost seen as the path to happiness. These moments of dialogue are repetitive and seem to just drag the reader along the page (Chekhov does use the word contagious, right?).

It is clear that when Yelena asks “How can an idle life be pure?”, Chekhov’s answer is: it can’t. Chekhov obviously emphasizes that labor and general work towards progress is one part of having a purposeful and happy life.

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Calling Uncle Vanya bleak is a bit of an understatement, as almost all of the dialogue has the hopeless feel that embodies the themes of the book exactly. However, Chekhov still manages to throw in a couple of dark, dark passages that take the reader completely by surprise, for example:

Telegin: “What a lovely day today. Not too hot….”

Uncle Vanya: “Excellent weather for suicide.”

These quips found throughout the play detract from and destroy any type of hope a character may find, especially in the natural world.

The destruction of the natural world and its direct correlation with the disillusionment the characters find within their lives is another prominent theme. The estate is very close to a forest so the environmental issue emphasized is the destruction of the forest. It is so interesting how Chekhov actually makes environmental arguments that seem to artfully correspond with the sense of destruction and decay throughout the play. These “environmental arguments” come across as warnings to the reader- warnings that are absolutely relevant today.

“Yes, sometimes we cut wood out of necessity, but why be wanton? Why? Our forests fall before the ax. Billions of trees. All perishing. The homes of birds and beasts being laid waste… Isn’t this so? What must man be, to destroy what he never can create?”

The quote below really expresses this spirit, this idea that each of the characters has in some way or another become a “demon of destruction” with not an ounce of love or hope that they are willing to embrace. It also shows the connection between environmental decay and moral decay.

“You cut down woodlands you cannot replace and soon they will be gone. And you cut men down. Mindlessly. And soon it will be gone. True feeling… purity, fidelity, self-sacrifice…There is in each one of you a demon of destruction, which spares nothing: neither forests, birds, nor women, nor each other…”

The most powerful character in the play to me was Astrov. Although he remains disgusted by his old age and the burden the city has placed on him as a doctor (making night calls, no days off, etc.), Astrov is the only character who takes any initiative to make a positive impact on the world around him or think of the future. While the rest of the characters are stuck completely in the past, mourning their regrets, and only looking forward to death, Astrov thinks a bit differently:

“I planted that forest. And I think: perhaps things may be in our power. You understand. Perhaps the climate itself is in our control. Why not? And if, in one thousand years, man is happy, I will have played a part in that happiness. A small part.”

Our younger female characters (Sonya and Yelena) recognize this as well. Interestingly, both Sonya and Yelena are attracted to Astrov, Sonya being completely infatuated with Astrov (although he only returns Yelena’s feelings). As seen in the quote below thoughts on “the Happiness of Man” are so out of place in Uncle Vanya, so of course Astrov is seen as a “beautiful person”:

“What he has is talent. Darling. Scope of Mind. He plants a tree, and when he plants it he sees, he is trying to see what comes of his action in a thousand years. A thousand years. D’you know? He’s thinking of the Happiness of Man. When you find such beautiful people… they must be loved.”

(Yelena to Sonya)

Although romance is present in Uncle Vanya, it is always in the form of love that cannot ever be realized, only adding to the melancholy feeling in the play.

Ultimately and unfortunately, there is no hope for the present. Each of the characters comes to terms with their deep rooted disillusionment, resentment, and idleness, but no one ends up resolving their emotions. There is a simultaneous turn towards death and the afterlife as a hope for equality and a new start. The play goes on with Uncle Vanya and Sonya remaining on the estate, and Professor Serebryakov and Yelena moving back to the city (just like the beginning), except that now each character is very in touch with his/her pain and the constant burden of living.

“I bear my life, and shall till my life comes to its natural end. And so must you.”

In the end, hope is saved for beyond the grave. The play ends with this quote which reaffirms the sadness and depression of life.

“All we can do is live. We’ll live through a long row of days. And through the endless evenings. And we’ll bear up. Under the trials fate has sent to us. We’ll constantly toil for others. Now, and the rest of our days. And when we come to die, we’ll die submissively. Beyond the grave we will testify that we have suffered…. And God will pity us. You and I.”

It is impossible to not feel a bit despondent after reading this play, but it is still very much worth a read. This was my first exposure to Chekhov and I am amazed at how well the text connects with the reader. There is really something in here that everyone must be able to relate to.

Best,

-NS

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4 thoughts on “Book #32: Uncle Vanya

Add yours

      1. Oh, I’m so excited! After the play, you can watch the film starring Sidney Poitier! I took a British theater class, so I have lots of British empire plays that I read and could recommend. I will hold off until you’ve finished Raisin 😊

        Liked by 1 person

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