Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.


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.

The Land

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.

Indirect Action

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.

The Pseudo-Climax

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.