Uncle Vanya

by: Anton Chekhov



Throughout the play, a number of characters will describe themselves and others as "strange" and "eccentric", alien and in "exile," evoking a sense of alienation from both those around them as well as from their own persons. These motifs of estrangement are central to understanding the characters' sense of themselves and the events on and off-stage.

Motifs of estrangement occur above all in reference to the brooding philosopher of the play, Dr. Astrov, whose intelligence and visionary plans for forest conservation make him an "eccentric" in the provinces and whose increasing age has estranged him from himself. Moreover, estrangement also describes the constant introspection that brings him to these personal reflections. Indeed, one could argue that self-reflection requires a certain attempt to "make oneself strange," to take a position from which one can meditate on what is conventionally considered the most familiar—one's inner life.

A number of other characters experience themselves as strange as well. In moving to the provinces, Serebryakov suffers from an estrangement in space: on the estate, he feels as if in "exile" or as if having landed on some "alien planet", utterly uprooted from life as he knows it. His wife Yelena will describe herself as an "incidental character" in all aspects of her life, betraying a self- alienation in feeling inconsequential in one's own existence.

The Land

Early in the play, when Voynitsky first moans about his wasted life, his mother remarks that "[s]omething useful ought to have gotten done"—meaning that Voynitsky should have dedicated himself to some socially-conscious cause that might alleviate suffering. Such a cause would lend purpose to his meaningless existence. Of course, Maria's comment is ironic in light of the useless activities of those in the household. Indeed, the only socially conscious cause of the play is that of the land, and the foremost crusader for preserving the land is the outsider, Dr. Astrov.

The motif of the land first appears in Act I, when Sonya and Astrov deliver impassioned speeches defending conservation. For the lovelorn Sonya, repeating Astrov's teachings, the forests glorify the earth. By moderating the climate, they lighten the human war with nature, allowing for a more graceful, refined, and noble populace. On his part, Astrov decries the barbaric destruction of Russia's forests; rather than destroy, man should make use of his capacity for reason and creation. The work of conservation puts the climate under Astrov's power; it will enable him to ensure his legacy. Such utopian dreams make Astrov an eccentric, a strange visionary in a play where most characters have either given up their aspirations or are entirely indifferent to such concerns. Astrov clings to his utopian vision against the wanton destruction of the region, the ruin of the land being ever in the play's background. In Act III, Astrov more methodically charts the land's degeneration while describing his cartogram to Yelena, attributing this ruin to man's brute struggle for survival. Yelena, of course, is utterly uninterested. Indeed, ultimately even Astrov abandons his preserves, falling idle as he spends more time at the estate. For translator Eugene Briscow, the destruction of the land parallels the ruin in the characters' lives.

Indirect Action

As noted in the Context, Chekhov pioneered the "indirect action" play, using understatement, broken conversation, off-stage episodes, and absent characters to catalyze tension and evoke unseen events that intervene into the action on- stage. Importantly, however, indirect action comes into play in an entirely realistic fashion. Often the effect is thus one of disorientation, estranging the viewer from the supposedly realistic spectacle before him and making him aware of the crafted nature of the work. Thus, along with considering the characters' sense of themselves through alienation, we can perhaps extend the motif of estrangement to the staging of Uncle Vanya as well.