Astrov sees Sonya approaching and, as he is not properly dressed, excuses himself. Sonya reproaches her uncle for getting drunk with the doctor and for in general leaving the maintenance of the estate to her alone. Voynitsky grows tearful; apparently he sees his dead sister's look in Sonya's. "If only she knew!" he exclaims, crumbling into incoherent babble.
Once Voynitsky has exited, Sonya calls for Astrov who, humorously enough, emerges wearing his waistcoat and tie. The two chat intimately, Astrov becoming increasingly introspective as the conversation progresses. First he complains that her father is a difficult patient. Then, while explaining why he could not bear to live in her depressing household, he makes a number of observations regarding Yelena. Unspeakably idle, Yelena "only eats, sleeps, goes for walks, and charms everyone of us with her beauty—and nothing more."
Pausing, Astrov then muses on his personal disappointment with life. Notably he invokes the metaphor of the forest at night: Fate lashes his face with its branches as he plods on interminably. Thus his utopian forest takes on a more sinister meaning.
Astrov despises his provincial "boxed-in" lifestyle. The peasants are backward and filthy. The intellectuals are for the most part trivial and superficial; those with brains are "hysterical, absorbed with analysis and introspection." Moreover, Astrov especially resents that they label him "strange".
Having finished his tirade, Astrov moves to take a drink. Sonya stops him as she cannot bear to see such a good man ruin himself and makes him promise to renounce liquor. Astrov begins musing again: his feelings are dead to the world, although he is fascinated by beauty (namely Yelena's), he cannot love. He recalls his dead patient, etc. When Sonya hypothetically asks him what he would do if a friend or sister of hers loved him, he answers that he could not fall in love with her. He then exits.
Alone, Sonya makes a soliloquy, alternately expressing her joy at Astrov's presence and her unhappiness in having been implicitly rejected. Yelena then enters.
The two women pause and suddenly exclaim that they must reconcile—apparently they had been at odds for some time. They drink to their friendship. Yelena confesses that when she first met Serebryakov, he "fascinated" her, but her love was not real; as a result, Sonya has silently chastised her since the wedding.
Sonya then reveals her love for the doctor. Yelena enthusiastically hails him as "gifted," and his occasional coarseness should be forgiven. Clearly Astrov fascinates Yelena as well. Yelena then turns inward: unlike the gifted Astrov, she feels herself to be but an "incidental character" in all aspects of her life—in her abandoned musical studies, her love affairs, her household, and so on.
Inexplicably, Sonya laughs with joy. Yelena impulsively decides to play the piano. "I'll play the piano and cry, cry like a foolish girl," declares Yelena to herself. Sonya rushes out to ask her father if music would be permissible. Outside Yelena can hear the night watchman, and she commands him to be still. Sonya returns: they are not allowed to play.
As noted in the Context, Chekhov, along with Ibsen and Strindberg, pioneered what David Magarshack in Chekhov the Dramatist calls the "indirect action" play. This type of play uses understatement and broken conversation, off-stage events and absent characters as catalysts of tension while retaining a strict impression of realism. The strange end of Act II provides a particularly rich example to discuss these techniques.
Throughout these scenes, characters refer to actions that have not transpired on-stage: for example, the arguments between Serebryakov and Dr. Astrov or Astrov's getting drunk with Voynitsky. These moments exemplify what David Magarshack terms the "messenger element" of the indirect action play, in which the audience is informed of an unseen episode. Often, the use of this device is one of disorientation, in a sense distancing or "estranging" the audience from the spectacle on-stage by making the artificial nature of the play manifest.
With the encounter between the two women, we have an especially interesting example of indirect action, one that we can examine to great profit in explaining the device. Though Sonya and Yelena have certainly not been friendly up to this point, we have had no intimation of their conflict. Thus their sudden reconciliation after a few awkward pauses apparently comes out of nowhere even as it remains wholly feasible within the narrative (that is, explicable as an ongoing antagonism we simply have not seen).
Because their conflict has been constructed indirectly, their overwrought reconciliation seems hysterical (hysteria being a disorder characterized by violent emotional outbreaks, irrationality, and frenzy; historically hysteria has been associated with women, being initially diagnosed as a uterine illness). This hysterical quality also appears in Sonya's inexplicable jubilation, and Yelena's manic impulse to play the piano. Their encounter seems to involve an explosion of affect (being one of the few instances of joy in the play, albeit one that is preemptively stifled by the professor off-stage) separated from any clear cause or idea. This split between affect and idea is disconcerting to say the least.
Finally, since Chekhov's character notes are relatively sparse, we might linger on Astrov's characterization of Yelena: as an idle woman who charms with her beauty and offers little else. Yelena seems to understand herself in similar terms: as she tells Sonya, she has been but an "incidental character" in her love affairs, her home, her studies, and onward, her remark perhaps recalling Voynitsky's repeated accusations that she is not really living. Unlike other characters, alienated by age (Astrov) or displacement (Serebryakov), Yelena's sense of alienation lies in her being inconsequential in her own existence.
[Additional note: Yelena and Sonya's reconciliation refers to a custom of the Russian provinces. Literally, they say "Let us drink to Brudershaft (fellowship) Well, that means—na ty?" (or, "we will use the familiar second person when we address each other?"). This drink to fellowship requires the linking of arms and touching of glasses.]