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Uncle Vanya | Study Guide

Anton Chekhov

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Uncle Vanya | Act 2, The Household Wakes Up | Summary

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Summary

Late at night, Serebryakov and Yelena Andreevna are dozing in the dining room when the sound of the night watchman tapping his stick wakes them up. Serebryakov complains about the "unbearable" and "excruciating" pain of his leg, which he is convinced is rheumatism. He thinks Yelena is disgusted with him and wants to get rid of him. He is in fact, he says, disgusted with himself and his current living arrangement. He finds "every minute seems to stretch on endlessly from the one before it." He hates that no one talks about his successes. He especially hates that everyone pays attention to Vanya whenever he speaks, but when Serebryakov talks "everybody starts to feel depressed." He feels he has "paid his dues" and has the "right to peace in [his] old age, to some attention," but no one is giving it. Serebryakov also misses his old life: "my office, my lecture hall ... my esteemed colleagues." He contrasts his current life to his old one. In his current environment, he feels he is in a "burial vault" surrounded by "the same stupid people." In his old life, he believes he had success and a reputation.

Sonya joins Serebryakov and Yelena in the dining room. Sonya chides her father for asking for the doctor and then refusing to see him. Serebryakov says he won't "speak to that simpleton, not for one minute." Then he snaps at Sonya for giving him the wrong drops. Vanya enters the room and tells Yelena and Sonya to go to bed and he will sit up with Serebryakov. Serebryakov objects and begs the women not to leave: "He'll talk me to death!" He's spared when Marina enters the dining room. She comforts Serebryakov, fixes his blanket, and talks about how his first wife would worry about him when he was in pain. He agrees to go back to bed and leaves with her.

After Serebryakov leaves, Yelena complains about her husband and the household. She professes, "Something is very wrong in this house," and she talks about how much hate and anger exists between people. She implores Vanya "to make peace with everyone and not incite them to more hate." Vanya tells Yelena, "Make peace with me first!" He grabs her hand and tells her he loves her. He knows she does not feel the same way, which she confirms. Vanya feels his unrequited love is destroying him—and her. He urges Yelena to "take a chance," claiming "that damnable philosophy of yours is getting in the way." Yelena responds by asking Vanya why he got drunk. He tells her it was "Because it feels just a little bit like being alive." After she leaves he gives a soliloquy in which he mourns the loss of his youth, wonders about marriage, and explains his dislike of Serebryakov. Once he had "worshiped him," but now he feels he was deceived. He and Sonya worked hard and sent Serebryakov most of the money they made because they believed in him and considered him a genius. Now, though, he considers Serebryakov's achievements worthless and compares him to a soap bubble. He adds, "No one reads a page of his work, he's completely unknown, he's nothing!"

Astrov, who is also drunk, appears and they briefly discuss love and friendship. When Sonya comes into the dining room, Astrov hastily departs, saying, "I'm not wearing my tie." Sonya tells her uncle that getting drunk at his age "isn't pretty." He tells her, "When you don't have a real life, you must live your mirages." After he gets weepy and leaves, Sonya goes to Astrov's room and asks him to keep her uncle from drinking. He agrees, but he asks her not to call him to see her father anymore. Astrov then mentions how oppressive the household environment is, so much so he that feels he could not live there "for even a month without choking on the very air." He criticizes Sonya's stepmother, Yelena. Although he considers her physically beautiful, he finds her lacking because she "doesn't do anything." He describes his dissatisfaction with his own life. Although he "love[s] 'life,' generally speaking," he detests the "provincial, Russian, small-minded existence." He feels as if no matter how hard he works, "there is simply no light ... at the end of the dark path." He doesn't "expect anything out of life anymore." Sonya begs Astrov not to drink anymore, telling him he is destroying himself. He agrees, but says it is too late for him to create anything as his "time has passed." He "can't get close to anyone," but he can "still recognize beauty": "Yelena could turn my head if she got the idea." However, he knows "that's not love, it's not even closeness." Sonya probes him to find out how he would feel if he learned a woman loved him. Astrov says he would "probably feel nothing" and he is "incapable of falling in love." After he leaves, Sonya is giddy with delight and basks in remembering his voice.

Analysis

Serebryakov has contempt for everyone at the estate and believes he should be treated with deference because he is old. As Vanya's monologue reveals, Serebryakov had always been treated as if he were better than everyone else. He was the professor in the family, the person who was expected to make something of himself. The other family members sacrificed their own dreams so he could achieve his. Now that Serebryakov is retired, he expects everyone else to continue to treat him as if he is special and is upset because he feels they aren't doing so. His rivalry with Vanya is also evident from the way he believes people ignore him while paying attention to everything Vanya says.

Chekhov portrays two views of old age. Serebryakov thinks he is somebody special and wants to hold on to the vestiges of his professional life. He asks, "Haven't I earned the right to be an egoist in my old age?" He wants to be rewarded for his career and views old age as meriting attention and respect, believing he has "the right to peace in [his] old age, to some attention." He is unapologetic for his age, telling his wife, "I won't beg your forgiveness for being old!"

In contrast, Vanya feels worthless because of his old age. He feels he has lost the chance to find happiness and meaning. He views youth as the ideal stage of life, telling Yelena, "You are my happiness, my life, my youth!" Whereas Serebryakov considers his life to have been well spent, Vanya considers his life a loss and yearns to go back to a time in which he had hope and believed the world still held opportunities for him. To him, old age is a death sentence to all his life could have been and won't be.

Both Serebryakov and Vanya could use a better view of reality. As Vanya reveals, Serebryakov was not an esteemed professor, and his professional achievements do not merit the respect he thinks is his due. Vanya has a conception of marriage with Yelena that does not match either's temperaments or desires. He overlooks Yelena's personality and character. She wants a man she considers better than the ordinary people, someone intellectual or involved in a noble or lofty cause. She does not admire or respect Vanya, and it would have been impossible for them to have the type of marriage he imagines they would have had if he had pursued her when he was young. He is fooling himself to think he would have had a certain type of life if only he had done something different in the past.

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