Uncle Vanya is thematically preoccupied with what might sentimentally be called the wasted life, and a survey of the characters and their respective miseries will make this clear. Admittedly, however, it remains somewhat difficult to organize these concepts into a coherent theme as they belong more to the play's nastroenie, its melancholic mood or atmosphere, than to a distinct program of ideas.
One obvious characteristic of the play is that almost all the characters are consumed with lethargy, boredom, and regret over their unsatisfactory lives. They bemoan their old age, mourn the years that they have wasted in drudgery, pine over lost loves, and muse bitterly over what might have been if their lots had been different. They thus suffer from a sense of loss without knowing exactly what has been forfeited. Throughout the play, their private reflections burst through the surface of the everyday, giving way to torrents of unhappy introspection.
Uncle Vanya, the eponymous hero (an eponym being a real or imaginary person for whom something is named), is deeply embittered over having spent his life toiling for the benefit of Serebryakov, a once-worshipped scholar that Vanya has discovered to be a charlatan. Astrov, the region's doctor, laments the onset of age: his hard years in the country have left him numb to the world. Vanya's mother Maria pathetically fends off her unhappiness by studying pamphlets. Yelena, Serebryakov's wife, finds herself bound to a miserable husband whom she does not love. As for himself, the professor, having retired from public life, feels consigned to the tomb that his estate represents. Finally, his homely daughter Sonya has resigned herself to a loveless, monotonous life, awaiting the peace that death will bring. For all these disparate reasons, Uncle Vanya's characters feel trapped in their hopeless existences, mourn unrecoverable losses, and harbor deep resentment for those around them: the result is a volatile household in which all, to quote Yelena, has gone to "rack and ruin."
Inseparable from the theme of wasted lives is one we might sentimentally dub that of the impossible love. We can best appreciate the significance of this theme by first briefly considering the play's generic context. As discussed in the Context, Uncle Vanya is a revision of an earlier Chekhov play; in some sense it is thus also a rewriting of the conventional melodramatic plot that he heavily relied upon. Like most works of turn-of-the-century melodrama, The Wood Demon—Vanya's precursor—is organized around a structure of erotic intrigue involving three couples, the plot putting them through passionate seductions, arresting complications, desperate hand-wringing over hopeless romances, and a happy ending. Vanya also repeats this structure of erotic intrigue, but, he does so with a marked difference. The seductions are awkward and stilted, boorish and bungled, the players are indifferent to, oblivious to, or repulsed by each other, and, ultimately, their games leave everyone in a miserable situation. What we are charting here then is both a subversion of genre as well as an erotic subplot that is consistent with the thematic concerns of loss, regret, and the wasted life discussed above.
To make his remarks more concrete, we can survey the fate of Uncle Vanya's couples here. One consists of the decrepit Serebryakov and his beautiful wife Yelena. At best "fascinated" by the professor long ago, the latter does not love her husband, as she feels "incidental" in her married life. Nevertheless, Yelena remains with her husband—whether out of conscience, convention or inertia remains unclear. Our second intrigue involves Yelena and the desperate and crude Voynitsky, who hopelessly makes advances on her throughout the play (perhaps in some fantasy of liberating them both from their bondage under the professor). With Yelena, Voynitsky is consumed with thoughts of what might have been if he had married her before his bitter enemy did. Yelena rejects him wholeheartedly, finding in his declarations of love an impulse to destroy her. Third, we have the homely, gentle Sonya who loves Dr. Astrov and enlists Yelena as her advisor and helpmate: yet, Astrov is entirely indifferent to Sonya and her love-worship.
Ironically, Astrov does, however, find himself drawn to Yelena, and Yelena, herself, is attracted to Astrov as well. Their relation probably structurally resembles one from conventional melodrama, posing a younger, impassioned hero who by all counts should rescue the beautiful wife from her unhappy marriage (indeed, in The Wood Demon, Uncle Vanya's precursor, their intrigue takes on this form). Astrov and Yelena's courtship, however, is decidedly unromantic, made abrupt and disjointed through indirect action and Astrov's boorishness, and based on little more than a vague sense of fascination on both sides. Ultimately they part ways with regret, left to muse on what might have been. Their interaction recalls Yelena's sense that she is but an incidental character in her love affairs and Astrov's lament that he has "no relationship" with anyone. Indeed, the strangeness and alienated quality of their affair lies in the absence, on this stage, of the erotic relation as conventionally conceived.
Throughout the play, a number of characters will describe themselves and others as "strange" and "eccentric", alien and in "exile," evoking a sense of alienation from both those around them as well as from their own persons. These motifs of estrangement are central to understanding the characters' sense of themselves and the events on and off-stage.
Motifs of estrangement occur above all 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. Moreover, estrangement also describes the constant introspection that brings him to these personal reflections. Indeed, one could argue that self-reflection requires a certain attempt to "make oneself strange," to take a position from which one can meditate on what is conventionally considered the most familiar—one's inner life.
A number of other characters experience themselves as strange as well. In moving to the provinces, Serebryakov suffers from an estrangement in space: on the estate, he feels as if in "exile" or as if having landed on some "alien planet", utterly uprooted from life as he knows it. His wife Yelena will describe herself as an "incidental character" in all aspects of her life, betraying a self- alienation in feeling inconsequential in one's own existence.
Early in the play, when Voynitsky first moans about his wasted life, his mother remarks that "[s]omething useful ought to have gotten done"—meaning that Voynitsky should have dedicated himself to some socially-conscious cause that might alleviate suffering. Such a cause would lend purpose to his meaningless existence. Of course, Maria's comment is ironic in light of the useless activities of those in the household. Indeed, the only socially conscious cause of the play is that of the land, and the foremost crusader for preserving the land is the outsider, Dr. Astrov.
The motif of the land first appears in Act I, when Sonya and Astrov deliver impassioned speeches defending conservation. For the lovelorn Sonya, repeating Astrov's teachings, the forests glorify the earth. By moderating the climate, they lighten the human war 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 either given up their aspirations or are entirely indifferent to such concerns. Astrov clings to his utopian vision against the wanton destruction of the region, the ruin of the land being ever in the play's background. In Act III, Astrov more methodically charts the land's degeneration while describing his cartogram to Yelena, attributing this ruin to man's brute struggle for survival. Yelena, of course, is utterly uninterested. Indeed, ultimately even Astrov abandons his preserves, falling idle as he spends more time at the estate. For translator Eugene Briscow, the destruction of the land parallels the ruin in the characters' lives.
As noted in the Context, Chekhov pioneered the "indirect action" play, using understatement, broken conversation, off-stage episodes, and absent characters to catalyze tension and evoke unseen events that intervene into the action on- stage. Importantly, however, indirect action comes into play in an entirely realistic fashion. Often the effect is thus one of disorientation, estranging the viewer from the supposedly realistic spectacle before him and making him aware of the crafted nature of the work. Thus, along with considering the characters' sense of themselves through alienation, we can perhaps extend the motif of estrangement to the staging of Uncle Vanya as well.
One finds such a wide variety of examples of this technique throughout the play that it becomes difficult to discuss them synthetically. Thus we will consider one example at length—the encounter between Yelena and Sonya at the end of Act II—as it is perhaps here in the play that the effects of indirect action are most obvious. In this scene, the two women share an emotional reconciliation that appears to come out of nowhere. Though they certainly have not been friendly to this point, we have had no intimation of their conflict. At the same time, their sudden reconciliation remains wholly feasible.
Because this conflict has been constructed indirectly, their encounter functions as an unsettling hysterical outburst. The hysteria continues with Sonya's ensuing inexplicable jubilation, and Yelena's impulse to play the piano. Thus the scene presents an explosion of affect—indeed, it is one of the few instances of joy in the play—separated from any clear cause or idea. This separation again refers back to the motif of estrangement as the characters are stricken with emotions that do not correspond with their situation.
As discussed in the Context, Chekhov's late plays reject the classical Aristotelian plot line, in which rising and falling action frame an immediately recognizable climax and give way to a denouement. The play's pseudo- climax—a bungled murder in Act III—is perhaps the defining element in Uncle Vanya's rejection of the traditional plot.
In this scene, the audience takes part in all the trappings of a climatic turning point—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, the sounds of off-stage violence, and so on. At the same time, Chekhov botches all the climax's elements. The "revelations" of this scene have already been rehearsed in Voynitsky's many laments—the audience does not learn anything particularly shocking. 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; the act that would assume tragic proportions ends with a laugh.
A number of critics have interpreted this tragicomic scene according to Vanya's character and the theme of the wasted life. Being a lifelong, laughable failure, Vanya must botch his attempt at murder and end in bitter resignation. Unable to execute this final, potentially glorious act, Uncle Vanya is less the tragic hero than a broken man, a laughingstock. Serebryakov even denounces him as a "nonentity" in this scene, a man who has done nothing and will be quickly forgotten.
Uncle Vanya does not rely heavily on symbols though one could, however, identify a number of the objects on stage as symbolic. The chickens from Act I, for example, might represent the idly chattering members of the household. We cannot forget Astrov's "colossal" and "asinine" moustache, which materializes (right under his nose, so to speak) his heavy sense of alienation from himself. One might also recall Voynitsky's bouquet of autumn roses from Act III, a peace offering he intends to give Yelena until he sees her in Astrov's arms. These "lovely" and "sad" roses that do not reach their destination readily represent Voynitsky's hopeless love. Finally, one might consider the map of Africa, bizarrely on the wall of Voynitsky's bedroom/office. Clearly out of place—as indicated by the stage notes—this image of a land far away from the Russian provinces perhaps symbolizes what Voynitsky's yearns for, that which might have been, but has been irretrievably, lost in his wasting his life.