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Uncle Vanya

Anton Chekhov

Act III - Part Two

Act III - Part One

Act IV - Part One

Summary

Suddenly Serebryakov, Sonya, Marina, and Telegin enter the drawing room. While Serebyakov complains that members of the household are missing, Sonya asks Yelena if Astrov has denied her: Yelena nods silently.

Declaring he cannot accustom himself to country life, Serebryakov invites the group to sit, insisting above all that Voynitsky must stay at the meeting. Serebryakov announces that, in light of his advancing age, the interests of Yelena and Sonya, and the impossibility of his living in the country, he plans to sell the estate and invest the proceeds to provide for their income. Voynitsky is livid, largely because Serebryakov has made no plans for his mother, Sonya, and Voynitsky himself.

Over and against Maria's deferral to Serebryakov and Telegin's comically embarrassed interventions, Voynitsky reminds the group that the estate passed from his sister to Sonya, that—in the name of his sister—he gave up his inheritance and slaved to rescue it from debt. He also reminds them how he has spent years managing the estate on a beggar's wages to provide the professor's income. Though others move to silence him, he then confronts the professor directly. After years of worshipping him, he now sees him as a fraud, a worthless and failed scholar. Voynitsky claims that Serebryakov is responsible for the waste of Voynitsky's best years.

Yelena screams she must leave immediately, and Telegin storms out. Maria continues to urge her son to listen to the professor, while Sonya huddles with Marina. Serebryakov calls Voynitsky a "nonentity" and tells him to take the estate if he wants. With resolve Voynitsky storms out, ominously warning the professor that he will remember him; Maria follows.

As Serebryakov and Yelena once again announce their intention to leave, Sonya begs her father for compassion, reminding him how she and Voynitsky lived in deprivation to send him his income. Yelena tells her husband to straighten things out, and they both go after Voynitsky. Marina attempts to console Sonya, appealing to God's mercy and promising that all will pass with "some lime tea or raspberry."

Suddenly a shot rings out off-stage. Yelena screams; Serebryakov runs in terrified, begging for help. Voynitsky and Yelena struggle in the doorway; the former frees himself and fires a second shot. After a pause, it becomes clear he has missed. Utterly dejected, Voynitsky tosses the revolver to the ground and sinks into a chair.

Analysis

To borrow a term from Eric Bentley, the final moments of Act III form Uncle Vanya's pseudo-climax, a scene with all the trappings of a turning point but that is no climax at all. As discussed in the Context, Chekhov distinguished himself from his contemporaries in forcefully rejecting the classical Aristotelian plot line, in which rising and falling action frame an immediately recognizable climax and give way to a denouement. The pseudo-climax points to the complexity of his narrative structure.

In this scene, we take part in a household meeting, a detailed explanation of how Sonya and Voynitsky have sacrificed their lives for the professor, a final confrontation between Voynitsky and Serebryakov, and the sounds of off-stage violence: all these elements seemingly point toward a culminating episode. At the same time, these elements of climax are compromised. The scene's "revelations" have already been vaguely intimated or rehearsed verbatim in Voynitsky's many laments—the audience does not learn anything particularly shocking. Indeed, one even wonders if Voynitsky and Serebryakov have had this fight many times. As Marina comforts Sonya: "The ganders will cackle, and then they'll stop cackle and then stop." All this melodrama then is so much monotonous cackling, cackling that everyone has heard before.

Along with going over old ground, the "action" of this climax ends in anti- climatic failure: Vanya farcically bungles Serebryakov's murder (recall the struggle with Yelena in the doorway and the missed shot at point blank range). The "villain" is not killed, no catharsis ensues, and the act that would assume tragic proportions ends with a laugh. A number of critics have interpreted this pseudo-climax as Vanya's fate. Being a lifelong, laughable failure, Vanya cannot but botch his attempt at murder. Unable to execute this final, potentially "glorious" act—the act by which he would ostensibly be remembered—Uncle Vanya is ultimately less the tragic hero than a broken man, a fool. Notably then does Serebryakov denounce him as a "nonentity," a man who has done nothing and will be quickly forgotten. In the following act, Marina will similarly deride Voynitsky for his squawking: "It's the gander himself, gaw-gaw-gaw!" Astrov will call him a "laughing stock full of beans" (the translation seems awkward; literally, "a clown full of peas")—that is, a ridiculous, foolishly dressed, or shallow person who serves as a universal laughingstock (a familiar fate for any misanthropic hero). In light of his humiliation, Voynitsky's delusions of grandeur here then are especially pathetic. [Additional Note: When Serebryakov unveils his plans to sell the estate, Voynitsky remarks that he did not realize they were following Turkish law—that is, passing the dead wife's property to her husband. In the 1890s, Turkish law dictated that the husband retained the dowry if his wife died.]

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