Uncle Vanya


Act III - Part Two

Summary Act III - Part Two


To borrow a term from Eric Bentley, the final moments of Act III form Uncle Vanya's pseudo-climax, a scene with all the trappings of a turning point but that is no climax at all. As discussed in the Context, Chekhov distinguished himself from his contemporaries in forcefully rejecting the classical Aristotelian plot line, in which rising and falling action frame an immediately recognizable climax and give way to a denouement. The pseudo-climax points to the complexity of his narrative structure.

In this scene, we take part in 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, and the sounds of off-stage violence: all these elements seemingly point toward a culminating episode. At the same time, these elements of climax are compromised. The scene's "revelations" have already been vaguely intimated or rehearsed verbatim in Voynitsky's many laments—the audience does not learn anything particularly shocking. Indeed, one even wonders if Voynitsky and Serebryakov have had this fight many times. As Marina comforts Sonya: "The ganders will cackle, and then they'll stop cackle and then stop." All this melodrama then is so much monotonous cackling, cackling that everyone has heard before.

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, and the act that would assume tragic proportions ends with a laugh. A number of critics have interpreted this pseudo-climax as Vanya's fate. Being a lifelong, laughable failure, Vanya cannot but botch his attempt at murder. Unable to execute this final, potentially "glorious" act—the act by which he would ostensibly be remembered—Uncle Vanya is ultimately less the tragic hero than a broken man, a fool. Notably then does Serebryakov denounce him as a "nonentity," a man who has done nothing and will be quickly forgotten. In the following act, Marina will similarly deride Voynitsky for his squawking: "It's the gander himself, gaw-gaw-gaw!" Astrov will call him a "laughing stock full of beans" (the translation seems awkward; literally, "a clown full of peas")—that is, a ridiculous, foolishly dressed, or shallow person who serves as a universal laughingstock (a familiar fate for any misanthropic hero). In light of his humiliation, Voynitsky's delusions of grandeur here then are especially pathetic. [Additional Note: When Serebryakov unveils his plans to sell the estate, Voynitsky remarks that he did not realize they were following Turkish law—that is, passing the dead wife's property to her husband. In the 1890s, Turkish law dictated that the husband retained the dowry if his wife died.]