The hero of the play, Vanya (a name so common as to be equivalent to "Jack" or "Johnny" in English) is a bitter, aging man who has wasted his life in toil for his brother-in-law Serebryakov. Functioning as the play's misanthrope, he offers a number of humorous caricatures of those around him and is thus privileged with a certain bitter insight, though one that lacks the deliberation of Astrov. Put more directly, he is the character who most explicitly points out the miserable nature of the other characters' lives.
Vanya is obsessed with his wasted years and the thought of what might have been—a major object of this jealous obsession being the professor's wife, Yelena. As Yelena notes, this obsession betrays a certain "destructive" impulse in his character. One also wonders if it might involve a hopeless fantasy to liberate them both from their bondage under Serebryakov.
Throughout the play, Voynitsky will find himself silenced, dismissed, and rejected. He suffers two major humiliations, both in Act III. First, he returns with a bouquet of roses for Yelena, only to witness her near-seduction by Dr. Astrov, and second, he fails to shoot his "bitterest enemy," Serebryakov, in the next scene. This botched murder is also the play's farcical pseudo-climax, as Voynitsky misses his foe twice at point blank range. Voynitsky thus emerges as less a tragic hero than a pathetically broken man.
Reduced to nothing by the fourth act, Voynitsky falls into a terrible depression and throws himself into his drudgery to keep his misery at bay. He speaks of madness, his dread before the empty years to come, and hopelessly dreams of a new life. In the end, he will find solace in no one—not his mother (who defers to the professor in all matters), nor the embittered Astrov, nor his niece, Sonya, who urges him to look toward death for peace.
Not being as prone to monologues as Astrov and Voynitsky, the beautiful Yelena is a somewhat mysterious figure. Certainly a number of characters (not to mention critics) write her off as a shallow woman who does little more than idly eat, sleep, and charm with her beauty. This portrait of Yelena, however, perhaps gives her short shrift. Rather than simply charm, it is clear that she fascinates all the major characters of the play, apparently seducing Voynitsky and Astrov without any effort, though again, Chekhov's dependence on indirect action leaves us speculating. She also distracts Sonya from her work entirely. Indeed, in Act III Sonya will describe Yelena's idleness as "infectious" and bewitching, drawing everyone from their duties. More ominously in Act IV, Astrov will cast her has a harbinger of disaster, precipitating both the ruin of the land that in turn reflects the ruin in the household.
As for Yelena's self-understanding, we find few key clues. Like the others who have wasted their lives, she appears to have abandoned a budding music career to marry the aging Serebryakov, with whom she remains out of habit. Also like a number of the play's characters, she suffers from a certain sense of self- estrangement. Unlike the characters whose sense of alienation lies in age or displacement, however, Yelena feels estranged from herself in being an "incidental character" in her own life, in feeling inconsequential in her own existence.
Astrov is the Uncle Vanya's philosopher, marked by Chekhov's characteristically extended, brooding, and introspective speeches that appear to proceed with little reference to those around the speaker. Overworked and ruined by provincial life, Astrov finds himself numb to the world, unable to want and love, and dejected at the thought that he will be forgotten in the course of time. As Astrov's feelings are in some sense anesthetized by his empty and disappointing life, one perhaps finds Astrov's double in the dead patient he mentions a number of times, a man who died while under chloroform.
In terms of the plot, Astrov's missed chance at something like love is the failed seduction of Yelena. Though their affair might offer an escape from their respective miseries, it does not come to fruition and, instead, ends with a nostalgic farewell. Thus the two seem to experience a loss they cannot even be certain that they suffered, a potential loss, and look toward future regret. Moreover, we should qualify that this seduction does not show Astrov in love: he is merely fascinated by Yelena's beauty.
Astrov also serves as the play's visionary. In his plans of forest conservation he dreams of a legacy that he can leave for future generations, extols the beauty of nature, and pitches man's capacity to create over and against his impulse to destroy. On the other hand, one wonders if these visions are little more than drunken illusions: as Astrov will note in Act II, it is only when drunk that he feels "monumental" rather than "eccentric."
This convergence of attributes indeed makes Astrov a strange figure—not only to the boxed-in lifestyle of the provinces but to himself as well. Throughout the play, Astrov will appear in relation to the motif of self- estrangement, his sense of alienation from himself providing the occasion for his self-conscious ruminations.
Sonya is Serebryakov's simple, gentle, and homely daughter by his first marriage. Like her Uncle Vanya, she has dedicated her life to the maintenance of the estate. Throughout the play, she is quick to chastise those who would disrupt the household—her father in particular—and attempts to keep peace among her relations. Her primary subplot involves her hopeless love for Dr. Astrov. Once disappointed, she miserably rededicates herself to her toils, telling her uncle that they can only look toward death for peace—the only time when they will be able to recall the past without bitterness and regret. In considering Sonya, one should note that her misery never quite reaches tragic proportions: Sonya is too modest to be a martyred lover and too pathetic to be a fallen heroine. Her "commonplace" misery, poignant in being so mundane, testifies to the subtlety of Chekhovian realism.