Uncle Vanya

by: Anton Chekhov

Act I - Part One

Voynitsky's remarks almost reduce Telegin to tears. Apparently his wife deserted him the day after their wedding because of his "unprepossessing appearance." "Waffles" has remained faithful, however, supporting the children she has had by her lover. Though miserable, he has retained his pride, while his wife has grown old, and her lover has died.


As one might have noticed, most of the characters of Uncle Vanya are consumed with lethargy, boredom, and regret over their disappointing lives, mourning years they have wasted in drudgery and the ways in which their fates might have been different. To recall Voynitsky's description of his mother, the characters here are half-dead with bitterness and hopeless seek the renewal of their lives. Their malaise is reflected in the mugginess of the afternoon; indeed, Voynitsky will remark in the following scene that in such "lovely weather" one could hang oneself.

Astrov introduces this theme of the wasted life in two extended speeches. Notably Astrov describes being surrounded by "eccentric people" and then, in the course of his disappointing life, becoming "strange" himself. This motif of estrangement—referring to a sense of alienation from not only those around you but from yourself as well—will recur in relation to the aging doctor. Astrov's becoming strange to himself over the years is materialized here by his "colossal" and "asinine" moustache—a moustache utterly foreign to his own self-concept.

One might also note that the motif of self-estrangement describes Astrov's constant introspection as well. To some extent, the self-reflection he undertakes requires that he "make himself strange", that he distance himself from what is conventionally considered the most familiar—one's inner life. This self-estrangement is matched by the distance Astrov takes from the world around him when brooding. Though ostensibly addressed to Marina, his speeches seem to proceed entirely without their manifest listener in mind. Note how Astrov suddenly remembers that Marina is next to him at the end of his first speech ("Except you, perhaps, you're the only one I may love") and then rambles off into a memory of his childhood nanny.

Also of interest is Astrov's story of the patient who dies while anesthetized. A few lines above, Astrov relates how his feelings have become dead to the world, how he no longer needs, wants, or loves. This numbness is tantamount to a kind of anesthesia: thus we can consider the dead patient Astrov's double, and, indeed, Astrov himself might be aware of this doubling. Tellingly, his "feelings [come] back again" when the patient dies. As he confesses: "I was tortured so much by my conscience I felt that I'd deliberately killed him." One could argue then that Astrov "kills"—albeit accidentally—the anesthetized patient, which doubles for ending his own anesthetizing in order to feel again, even if that feeing is one of guilt.

Speeches such as Astrov's will recur throughout Uncle Vanya, the inner life of the characters constantly standing to release a torrent of unhappy introspection. In reading these artificially long speeches, however, we should keep in mind that they burst through the surface of a realistic, everyday context—indeed, a dialogue, action, and setting defined by banality and petty detail. Recall, for example, the anecdote of the dining schedule or Voynitsky's famous understated entrance: "[Comes out of the house. He has had a good nap after lunch and appears rumpled. He sits down on a bench and adjusts his stylish tie.] Yes [pause] Yes" One might also recall here that the name "Vanya" is as common as "Jack" or "John" in English. Such use of banality helps to compose the very particular malaise described above, the misery in passing through the course of the everyday. Indeed, as we will see, everyday routine will ultimately subsume the changes in the characters' lives that their speeches might seem to foreshadow.