Act I - Part Two
Sonya and Yelena now enter the garden. Momentarily Maria Vasilevna also joins the party and begins to read a book. Sonya informs the nurse that some men have arrived from the village and asks her to attend to them: Marina exits.
Idle conversation ensues. Astrov has rushed to the estate to treat Professor Serebryakov's gout and rheumatism only to discover that Serebryakov is doing fine. Exhausted from his trip, the doctor will now join the group for dinner and spend the night. Sonya discovers the tea is cold, the samovar having been out since the morning (again, note the petty details). When Yelena mispronounces Telegin's name, the latter peevishly reproaches her, reminding her of his long history with the estate ("Nowadays I live here, ma'am, on this estate, ma'am You may have been so good as to notice I eat dinner with you every day"). Maria abruptly exclaims that she forgot to tell the professor of an "awful" pamphlet she received, in which the author refutes a point he defended seven years ago. Voynitsky dismisses his mother's chitchat, and she protests, "But I want to talk!" Maria accuses Vanya of having greatly changed from the man of convictions and "shining personality" she once knew. Voynitsky replies bitterly that his shining personality has never illuminated anyone. In the past year, he has abandoned all scholarship and finds himself unable to sleep in his anger over having let life go by.
Unimpressed Sonya chides her uncle for being boring. Maria observes that Vanya himself is at fault for his failure: "Something useful ought to have gotten done," she remarks. Voynitsky retorts that not everyone can be a "writer perpetuum mobile" (or writer in perpetual motion) like the professor, ironically referring to both the professor's lackluster career and rheumatism. Sonya protests, and Voynitsky silences himself. A number of awkward pauses ensue. Yelena comments on the "lovely weather"; Voynitsky remarks that in such weather one could hang oneself. Telegin begins to play a polka on a guitar as Marina returns and calls the chickens. The group listens in silence.
A workman then arrives and summons Astrov to the factory. Annoyed, Astrov prepares to leave and invites Yelena and Sonya to his forest preserve. When Yelena wonders if forestry can be all that interesting, Sonya passionately recounts Astrov's efforts to stop the devastation of the forests and proclaims the benefits of conservation for civilization. Joining Sonya, Astrov decries man's impulse for destruction, extolling the beauty of nature and man's capacity to create; by saving trees, he leaves his legacy to future generations. Taking a drink of vodka, Astrov then admits that perhaps only an "eccentric" could think thus and departs.
Yelena and Voynitsky then walk to the veranda. Yelena reproaches Vanya for once again criticizing her husband. Vanya protests: "If only you could see your face, the way you move Even to go on living seems too much of an effort for you!" Yelena rejects Vanya's sympathy: just as man would destroy Astrov's forests, Vanya would destroy her.
Yelena then digresses, revealing that Sonya has fallen in love with Astrov and intimating her own interest in him. When she abruptly asks Voynitsky to stop looking at her, he desperately declares his love. Yelena immediately moves to silence him, and the two move toward the house, Voynitsky imploring, "Just let me talk about my love and this alone will make me the happiest person in the world." "This is torture" Yelena replies. The scene closes with Telegin's polka, and Maria making notes in the margin of her pamphlet.
Toward the end of Act I, Yelena announces her feeling for Voynitsky with resigned sarcasm: the two are such good friends because they are both "tedious, boring people!" Accordingly the scenes described above allow us to consider the tedium Uncle Vanya portrays in provincial life, tedium conveyed not only through setting (the muggy afternoon) and action (the characters' idleness) but a dull, petty dialogue. Of particular interest will be Voynitsky's disruption of this idle chitchat. Along with establishing the lethargy in the characters' lives, these scenes will also introduce the only socially conscious "cause" of the play: the land.
These scenes bring together for the first time the members of the household, with Serebryakov being the major exception. Conversation goes nowhere, moving from Astrov's plans to spend the night (plans that are cancelled upon the arrival of the workman), Sonya's discovery that the tea is cold, Telegin's rebuke over his mispronounced name, and, finally, Maria's pamphlets. Voynitsky will then interrupt the conversation, appearing utterly exasperated with the others' empty talk: to him, it is boring, useless, and ridiculous. As he tells Maria: "For fifty years now we've been talking and talking and reading pamphlets. It's high time we stopped."
Voynitsky thus raises the conflicts that such petty conversation would cover over: soon he and Maria are arguing over his wasted life on the estate and the place of the professor in their lives. Notably then are the two immediately silenced: a tense pause follows. As we will see, Voynitsky in particular will find himself silenced by indifferent listeners throughout the play. Here the stifling of his speech denies a confrontation on the crucial subject of the professor. A few moments later, Yelena will deny his declaration of love, the two then returning to the house and leaving the stage silent; the act ends with Maria and Telegin utterly unmoved by the melodrama that has transpired before them. This continuous silencing of Voynitsky marks a refusal to acknowledge his wasted life. All-too-apparent to everyone, his "boring" misery implicates all those who have given themselves for the professor and is thus a misery that must be denied.
Act I also introduces the motif of the land in Sonya and Astrov's impassioned speeches. For the lovelorn Sonya, who repeats Astrov's teachings, the forests glorify the earth, teaching us beauty and majesty. By moderating the climate, they lighten the human struggle 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 given up such lofty aspirations.
Astrov clings to his utopian vision amid the wanton destruction of the region's forests, the ruin of the land being ever in the background. Recall, for example, the village struck with spotted typhus. Similarly, when asked why the villagers came to the estate, Marina replies, "It's the same thing, as always. They were going on again about the waste land." Translator Eugene Briscow—perhaps copying Yelena's accusation that Voynitsky's attack is the same destructive impulse man directs toward the forest—argues that the destruction of the land parallels the ruin in the characters' lives.
[Additional Note: As Simon Karlinsky notes, in Chekhov's day the phrase "Something useful ought to have gotten done" also meant "Something for the cause ought to have gotten done," the "cause" referring to any socially conscious action that might alleviate suffering. For Karlinsky, this phrase is an ironic comment on the useless activities of Serebryakov, Maria Vasilevna, and others. Obviously the only character with such a cause is Astrov.]
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