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Uncle Vanya


Act III - Part One

Summary Act III - Part One


As noted earlier, among all the erotic criss-crossings in the play, Astrov and Yelena's intrigue structurally resembles an affair from conventional melodrama, in which the impassioned lover comes to rescue the beautiful heroine from her unhappy marriage. Indeed, in The Wood Demon,Uncle Vanya's precursor, their intrigue takes on this form.

Certainly here we have elements that might suggest that Yelena's escape from Serebryakov and something like a "happy ending" could be imminent. Notably, the prospect of this escape is cast in "fairy tale" terms: like a mermaid, Yelena may disappear into a whirlpool with her water sprite. Moreover, Yelena's soliloquy reveals the extent of her fascination with the doctor. In musing over Astrov, she already feels guilty, finding herself ready to implore Sonya for forgiveness. One wonders then if at some level she has already accepted the doctor as a paramour.

At the same time, Astrov's seduction is strangely "off"—awkward, bungled, and more farcical than romantic. One cannot but laugh, for example, at such pet names as "dear bird of prey" and "beautiful, fluffy weasel". Astrov's boorishness aside, we will also examine the strangeness of this seduction by looking at two of Chekhov's primary dramaturgical devices: indirect action and subtext.

Allowing an indefinite period of time to pass between Acts II and III (though we know it is still autumn), Chekhov opens a gap between what happened since we left off and what transpires at the moment on stage. Thus one experiences an almost ridiculous abruptness in Astrov's attempt. This is even more the case as Astrov seems to take great interpretative liberties in identifying Yelena's desire as the subtext of their conversation: his accusation that she wants him seems wishful at best. At the same time, his proposition is not quite absurd. Framed in realist fashion, the events here would seem to take what was admitted in the act previous to its logical conclusion—namely, the fascination Yelena and Astrov share for each other that should culminate in an erotic encounter. Moreover, we are told that the doctor has been visiting the estate daily for some time now.

Indirect action and Astrov's unconvincing sense of subtext make this encounter jarring even as it is entirely reasonable in the narrative. Thus Chekhov undermines the seduction one might find in conventional melodrama. No dashing doctor rescues a beautiful wife from her decrepit husband here. The seduction will end quite anti-climatically, the lovers never getting to a first rendezvous.

Indeed, the theme of the "might-have-been" prevails: Yelena refuses the doctor once caught, this break prefiguring their almost elegiac farewell in Act IV. As Astrov tells Yelena in the last scene: "It is strange somehow, we never got to know each other, and all at once for some reason—we shall never meet again. So it is with everything in the world." Theirs will be a "love" at last sight, never realized and nostalgically rooted in what might have been.