Uncle Vanya

Summary

Act I - Part Two

Summary Act I - Part Two

Analysis

Toward the end of Act I, Yelena announces her feeling for Voynitsky with resigned sarcasm: the two are such good friends because they are both "tedious, boring people!" Accordingly the scenes described above allow us to consider the tedium Uncle Vanya portrays in provincial life, tedium conveyed not only through setting (the muggy afternoon) and action (the characters' idleness) but a dull, petty dialogue. Of particular interest will be Voynitsky's disruption of this idle chitchat. Along with establishing the lethargy in the characters' lives, these scenes will also introduce the only socially conscious "cause" of the play: the land.

These scenes bring together for the first time the members of the household, with Serebryakov being the major exception. Conversation goes nowhere, moving from Astrov's plans to spend the night (plans that are cancelled upon the arrival of the workman), Sonya's discovery that the tea is cold, Telegin's rebuke over his mispronounced name, and, finally, Maria's pamphlets. Voynitsky will then interrupt the conversation, appearing utterly exasperated with the others' empty talk: to him, it is boring, useless, and ridiculous. As he tells Maria: "For fifty years now we've been talking and talking and reading pamphlets. It's high time we stopped."

Voynitsky thus raises the conflicts that such petty conversation would cover over: soon he and Maria are arguing over his wasted life on the estate and the place of the professor in their lives. Notably then are the two immediately silenced: a tense pause follows. As we will see, Voynitsky in particular will find himself silenced by indifferent listeners throughout the play. Here the stifling of his speech denies a confrontation on the crucial subject of the professor. A few moments later, Yelena will deny his declaration of love, the two then returning to the house and leaving the stage silent; the act ends with Maria and Telegin utterly unmoved by the melodrama that has transpired before them. This continuous silencing of Voynitsky marks a refusal to acknowledge his wasted life. All-too-apparent to everyone, his "boring" misery implicates all those who have given themselves for the professor and is thus a misery that must be denied.

Act I also introduces the motif of the land in Sonya and Astrov's impassioned speeches. For the lovelorn Sonya, who repeats Astrov's teachings, the forests glorify the earth, teaching us beauty and majesty. By moderating the climate, they lighten the human struggle 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 given up such lofty aspirations.

Astrov clings to his utopian vision amid the wanton destruction of the region's forests, the ruin of the land being ever in the background. Recall, for example, the village struck with spotted typhus. Similarly, when asked why the villagers came to the estate, Marina replies, "It's the same thing, as always. They were going on again about the waste land." Translator Eugene Briscow—perhaps copying Yelena's accusation that Voynitsky's attack is the same destructive impulse man directs toward the forest—argues that the destruction of the land parallels the ruin in the characters' lives.

[Additional Note: As Simon Karlinsky notes, in Chekhov's day the phrase "Something useful ought to have gotten done" also meant "Something for the cause ought to have gotten done," the "cause" referring to any socially conscious action that might alleviate suffering. For Karlinsky, this phrase is an ironic comment on the useless activities of Serebryakov, Maria Vasilevna, and others. Obviously the only character with such a cause is Astrov.]