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Uncle Vanya

Anton Chekhov


Study Questions and Essay Topics

A number of characters in Uncle Vanya describe themselves as "estranged." Discuss the motif of estrangement as it appears in their speech.

The motif of estrangement—referring to both one's alienation from others and oneself—is central to understanding how Uncle Vanya's characters understand their respective problems. It occurs especially 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. Astrov's becoming strange to himself is symbolized by the "colossal" and "asinine" moustache he has come to grow—a moustache utterly foreign to his self-concept. Self-estrangement also in a sense describes his constant introspection. Indeed, one could argue that self-reflection requires that one take a position from which one can meditate on, and thus "make strange" that which is conventionally considered the most familiar—one's inner life.

Professor Serebryakov also finds himself made strange through age, though his sense of alienation has more to do with his rheumatic, gout-ridden body. In his decrepitude, his voice and body have become detestable and foreign. Indeed, he even dreams that his left leg belongs to someone else. Moreover, in leaving academic life and moving to the provinces, Serebryakov suffers from a certain estrangement in space: on the estate, he feels as if in "exile" or as if having landed on some "alien planet." Unwelcome and unwanted, he is not at home there, having left Voynitsky and Sonya to maintain it for years and disrupting its routine with his arrival. Thus it is appropriate that he cannot sleep at night; as Astrov sings in Act II, "There's no place for the master to go to bed"

Discuss one instance in which Chekhov uses indirect action.

Chekhov, along with Ibsen and Strindberg, is renowned as a pioneer of the "indirect action" play—loosely defined here as play that relies on understatement, broken conversation, off-stage events, and absent characters as catalysts of tension while retaining a strict impression of realism. By removing plot details from view, the effect of indirect action is often a sense of momentary disorientation. Such is the case in our example: the failed seduction between Astrov and Yelena in Act III.

In this scene, Yelena—at the behest of Sonya—cross-examines Astrov with regards to his feelings for her lovesick stepdaughter. Astrov has none; he is, however, convinced of Yelena's desire for him and attempts a seduction. At one level, Astrov's proposition seems to take what was admitted in the act previous to its logical conclusion—namely, the fascination Yelena and Astrov share for each other. Moreover, Astrov announces that he has been visiting the estate daily for some time now.

At the same time, these visits have been hitherto unmentioned, taking place in the unspecified period of time between Acts II and III. As the episodes leading to this moment have taken place indirectly, entering the play retrospectively at this moment of crisis, Astrov's already boorish attempt at seduction seems ridiculously abrupt. Moreover, the doctor comes off as taking great interpretative liberties in identifying Yelena's desire as the subtext of their conversation: his accusation that she wants him seems wishful at best.

Thus indirect action makes this encounter jarring even as it is entirely reasonable within the narrative. The significance of this disorientation becomes apparent in light of the play's generic context. Among all the erotic criss- crossings in the play, Astrov and Yelena's intrigue most closely recalls an affair from conventional melodrama, in which the hero must eventually rescue the heroine from her unhappy marriage. By introducing this "jolt" into their erotic relation, Chekhov undermines the seduction one might find in a conventional melodrama, turning romance into farce.

What is the significance of the land in Uncle Vanya?

The land takes on a number of meanings in Uncle Vanya. Most explicitly, the land is Dr. Astrov's "cause," giving purpose to his otherwise empty life. The motif of the land first appears in Act I, when Sonya and Astrov's deliver impassioned speeches defending conservation. To paraphrase: forests glorify the earth. By moderating the climate, they lighten the human war with nature, allowing for a more civilized populace. The barbaric destruction of Russia's forests point toward man's dangerous impulse to destroy, an impulse opposed to his capacity for reason and creation. In contrast, the work of conservation puts the climate under man's power, serving as his legacy to future generations and assuring his immortality. 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 visions against the progressive devastation of the region, a degeneration in which he participates by falling idle. For translator Eugene Briscow, the destruction of the land thus parallels the ruin in the characters' lives.

Suggested Essay Topics

Chekhov's late plays are known for blending the tragic and comic. Discuss one instance in which he does so in Uncle Vanya. What literary devices make this combination possible? How might this combination ramify thematically?

A number of characters in Uncle Vanya describe themselves as "haunted." Discuss how the trope of "haunting" appears in the play.

Chekhov is known for his use of the pause in dialogue. Choose two or three pauses in Uncle Vanya and discuss their effects. Consider literary devices and relevance to major themes. State your principle claim in the first sentence.

Uncle Vanya is renowned for its pseudo-climax. Consider the effect of dispensing with a more conventional climax in the context of this play. Pay attention to staging, literary devices, and relevance to theme and character. State your major claim in the first sentence.

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