Set in the daytime, Act III opens in the drawing room with Voynitsky and Sonya seated as Yelena paces in thought. The professor has called a meeting at one o'clock. After grumbling about Serebryakov, Voynitsky attacks Yelena, describing her as ready to "drop from sheer laziness". Yelena replies that she is dying of boredom and is without an idea of what to do. Sonya produces a number of possibilities: help with the estate, teaching, nursing, and so on. Yelena cannot imagine being interested; only people in ideological novels undertake such work.
For Sonya, Yelena's idleness is "infectious"—her effect on Vanya, herself, and the doctor, all of whom having deserted their work to follow her, make this clear. Yelena is certainly a witch. Voynitsky adds that she must have the blood of a mermaid and should flee the estate by diving into a whirlpool with some water sprite. Yelena is enraged: Voynitsky offers to pick her a bouquet of roses in apology and exits.
Sadly Sonya then puts her head on Yelena's breast and once again begins pining for the doctor. Having loved him for six years, she has lost all pride and confessed her love to everyone except Astrov. Remarking that he is a strange person, Yelena resolves to find out what he thinks of Sonya, using his cartograms (or ecological maps) as a pretext. Sonya pauses for a moment, wondering if uncertainty is better and exits to fetch him.
Yelena then delivers a soliloquy, ruminating on how Sonya cannot help falling for such a "fascinating" man amidst such boredom and admits her own fascination for the doctor. Recalling Vanya's quip about the mermaid, she wonders if she should flee with him—her conscience, however, prevents it. Indeed, she already feels guilty, ready to prostrate herself before Sonya and weep.
Astrov then enters with a cartogram and proceeds to explain the progressive degeneration of the region. Forests, settlements, and wildlife have disappeared in the "downhill struggle for existence"; instead of progress, the same swamps, diseases, and disasters remain. It is clear to Astrov that Yelena is uninterested. He breaks off, and she cross-examines him with regards to Sonya. Astrov does not love her.
He is, however, convinced that the subtext (or underlying subject or theme) of Yelena's cross-examination is her own desire and that she is finally responding to his longtime advances. Much to Yelena's dismay, he embraces her passionately and insists upon arranging a rendezvous. Yelena resists, and suddenly Voynitsky enters unseen. For a moment, Yelena will then relent, laying her head on Astrov's chest. Just as the doctor proposes a rendezvous, however, she sees Voynitsky and disengages herself from his arms. Astrov chats about the weather, noting that the days are getting shorter, and he exits. Nervously, Yelena insists that Voynitsky prevail upon her husband for an immediate departure from the estate; a shaken Voynitsky replies that he has seen everything.
As noted earlier, among all the erotic criss-crossings in the play, Astrov and Yelena's intrigue structurally resembles an affair from conventional melodrama, in which the impassioned lover comes to rescue the beautiful heroine from her unhappy marriage. Indeed, in The Wood Demon, Uncle Vanya's precursor, their intrigue takes on this form.
Certainly here we have elements that might suggest that Yelena's escape from Serebryakov and something like a "happy ending" could be imminent. Notably, the prospect of this escape is cast in "fairy tale" terms: like a mermaid, Yelena may disappear into a whirlpool with her water sprite. Moreover, Yelena's soliloquy reveals the extent of her fascination with the doctor. In musing over Astrov, she already feels guilty, finding herself ready to implore Sonya for forgiveness. One wonders then if at some level she has already accepted the doctor as a paramour.
At the same time, Astrov's seduction is strangely "off"—awkward, bungled, and more farcical than romantic. One cannot but laugh, for example, at such pet names as "dear bird of prey" and "beautiful, fluffy weasel". Astrov's boorishness aside, we will also examine the strangeness of this seduction by looking at two of Chekhov's primary dramaturgical devices: indirect action and subtext.
Allowing an indefinite period of time to pass between Acts II and III (though we know it is still autumn), Chekhov opens a gap between what happened since we left off and what transpires at the moment on stage. Thus one experiences an almost ridiculous abruptness in Astrov's attempt. This is even more the case as Astrov seems to take great interpretative liberties in identifying Yelena's desire as the subtext of their conversation: his accusation that she wants him seems wishful at best. At the same time, his proposition is not quite absurd. Framed in realist fashion, the events here would seem to take what was admitted in the act previous to its logical conclusion—namely, the fascination Yelena and Astrov share for each other that should culminate in an erotic encounter. Moreover, we are told that the doctor has been visiting the estate daily for some time now.
Indirect action and Astrov's unconvincing sense of subtext make this encounter jarring even as it is entirely reasonable in the narrative. Thus Chekhov undermines the seduction one might find in conventional melodrama. No dashing doctor rescues a beautiful wife from her decrepit husband here. The seduction will end quite anti-climatically, the lovers never getting to a first rendezvous.
Indeed, the theme of the "might-have-been" prevails: Yelena refuses the doctor once caught, this break prefiguring their almost elegiac farewell in Act IV. As Astrov tells Yelena in the last scene: "It is strange somehow, we never got to know each other, and all at once for some reason—we shall never meet again. So it is with everything in the world." Theirs will be a "love" at last sight, never realized and nostalgically rooted in what might have been.
These scenes are also notable in defining Yelena's character. First, they reveal her in all her idleness: she cannot even begin to be interested in the tasks Sonya offers her, tasks that might rescue her from her boredom. Nor can she feign interest in Astrov's cartogram. As Sonya notes, this idleness is "infectious," bewitching, inspiring the household's general malaise. Once again, as indicated throughout the play, Yelena's arrival, along with that of her husband, has thrown the life of the estate out of joint, plunging it into indolence. One might speculate then on how her wasted life perhaps reminds those around her of their own situations, making work impossible. Recall that in Act I, for example, when Voynitsky declares that before Yelena he cannot bear the thought of another wasting her life on the estate as he has.
[Additional Note: At one point in explaining his ecological map to Yelena, he refers to the "hermitages of Old Believers." Also referred to as Old Ritualists or Schismatics, the Old Believers split from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1667 over the revision of the church books, preferring the older versions.]