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Uncle Vanya | Plot Summary

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Summary

Act 1

Retired professor Alexander Serebryakov and his much younger wife, Yelena Andreevna, have recently come to stay at the country home where Serebryakov's daughter, Sonya, lives. Sonya inherited the home after the death of her mother, Serebryakov's first wife. Sonya lives there with her uncle, Vanya; her grandmother, Marya Vassilevna; and her former nanny, Marina. One muggy afternoon Marina and Astrov, a country doctor and family friend, are talking on the house's terrace. Astrov has been called to the house to examine Serebryakov, who is chronically ill with gout and other complaints. However, Serebryakov is not available for the doctor when he arrives. He is feeling better and has gone for a walk with Sonya and Yelena.

Astrov opens up to Marina, whom he has known for 10 years, and talks about his work and his discontent with life. He feels he has gotten old and has lost all feelings for life and other people. He explains that a man recently died on the operating table when he had been called to help out with a typhus epidemic, and he feels guilty about it. Vanya, who had been napping, joins them on the terrace and produces his own complaints. He is especially annoyed with the new residents, who have interrupted the household's routines with their demands and odd schedule.

After Yelena, Sonya, and Serebryakov return from their walk, Vanya praises Yelena's beauty and spews a litany of complaints about Serebryakov. He faults him for having spent 25 years as a professor and producing nothing of merit. According to Vanya, "not a single soul remembers" Serebryakov after he left the university and "he was simply taking up space," yet he acts "like a demigod."

Vanya's complaints are interrupted by Sonya, who has returned to the terrace and who immediately gives her attention to Astrov. Vanya starts an argument with his mother, Marya, and they bicker for a while. Astrov then gets called away to go to the factory. Before leaving, he invites Yelena to his estate to see his garden, nursery, and forest preserve. After Astrov leaves, Yelena chides Vanya for his poor treatment of his mother. He, in turn, changes the conversation to his attraction to her, which she dismisses as pointless.

Act 2

Shortly after midnight Serebryakov, who has fallen asleep in the dining room, awakens and complains of pains in his leg and difficulty breathing. He then turns his complaints outward and accuses his wife of finding him disgusting. Yelena refuses to engage with him and moves away, but Serebryakov continues to rant and complain, saying he expects he "won't last very much longer." He attempts to get a rise out of his wife by saying he deserves attention in his old age. He doesn't understand why everyone pays attention to Vanya but not to him. When Sonya enters the room, she scolds her father for having sent for the doctor and then refusing to see him. Serebryakov ridicules the doctor and her concerns.

Others in the household awaken. Vanya arrives in the dining room and tells everyone to go to sleep. He will stay up with Serebryakov, who begs not to be left alone with Vanya: "He will surely kill me with all of his blather." Serebryakov is saved from Vanya when Marina arrives and tenderly ministers to him, fixing his blanket and comforting him as if he were a baby. She takes Serebryakov to his room to sleep, and everyone but Yelena and Vanya retires to their rooms.

Vanya uses the opportunity of being alone with Yelena to profess his love to her again. He grabs her hand and gives her a speech that blends his declaration of love with descriptions of his despair because she "won't listen." He begs her to take a chance on him, but she tells him he is repellent to her and leaves. Vanya then talks to himself about all that could have been if he had fallen in love with Yelena 10 years earlier when she used to visit his sister's house. Vanya envisions the warm marriage they would have had. Instead, she married Serebryakov, whom he detests. He segues into complaints about Serebryakov, describing how he and Sonya "worked like an ox for him" and how they "squeezed every drop out of this estate." Vanya is embittered that they sent the estate's profits to Serebryakov because he's now discovered "the sum total of his life" is nothing and he never deserved to have everyone working for him.

Astrov returns and is joined by Telegin in the dining room. Astrov asks about Yelena and then invites Telegin to drink cognac with him. Before he leaves, Sonya reappears and chides him and Vanya for being drunk. Vanya explains he is drinking because he doesn't "have a real life" so he "must live [his] mirages." Sonya replies that while he is "living a mirage," she is doing all the work on the estate because he has stopped working. Her words remind Vanya of his deceased and much-loved sister, and he breaks out sobbing and leaves the room. Sonya retrieves Astrov and they speak alone. They talk about her uncle, her father, drinking, and Yelena. Astrov confides that he is unhappy with his life. Sonya asks him why he is destroying himself with drink and exacts a promise from him he will stop drinking. The talk turns to love. Astrov admits he is unable to love anyone, but he "can still recognize beauty." He reckons "Yelena could turn [his] head if she got the idea one day," but he knows that's not love. Sonya tries to find out if he has any feelings about her by asking how he would feel if someone loved him. He confesses he would "probably feel nothing."

After Astrov leaves, Sonya relishes their time together and basks in the good feeling of his words even though she does not think he is in love with her. Yelena comes in the dining room and Sonya confides that she is in love with Astrov. They talk about perceived resentments and patch up their own relationship. Filled with happiness, Yelena decides to play the piano. First, though, Sonya checks with her father to make sure the noise won't bother him. It will, and they are not allowed to fill the room with music and life.

Act 3

In the morning Sonya, Vanya, and Yelena wait in the living room for a meeting Serebryakov has called. Vanya urges Yelena to "be a siren" and let herself fall in love with someone, anyone other than her husband. After she expresses her disgust with this, Vanya attempts to make peace with her and he leaves to get some flowers for her. Sonya and Yelena talk about Astrov. Sonya cannot bear the uncertainty of not knowing if he has feelings for her. They hatch a plot: Yelena will try to find out if Astrov is interested in Sonya as a woman. If not, then Yelena will tell him he must not come to the estate anymore.

Yelena calls for Astrov to show her his maps so she can ask him about his feelings for Sonya. Astrov proudly shows her the maps and explains how civilization has decreased the forested regions and reduced the wildlife in the area. Yelena finally tells him her "mind is somewhere else." She asks if he likes Sonya as a woman, and Astrov admits he does not. He wonders why Yelena is asking and deduces she is attracted to him. He calls her a string of endearments and professes he has not done "a thing for a whole month" because he has been "hungrily searching" for her. He strikes a pose with his head down and invites her to "devour" him.

Yelena is horrified and thinks he has lost his mind. Astrov grabs her by the waist and kisses her. He is begging her to meet him the next day when Vanya enters the room with his bouquet of flowers and sees them in a tight embrace. Freed, Yelena goes to the window until Astrov leaves. Then she demands that Vanya at least help her and persuade her husband to leave the estate with her the same day.

At that moment, Serebryakov, Sonya, Marina, and Telegin enter the room. Serebryakov calls the meeting together and tells everyone he wants to sell the estate. He hates living in the country and wants to buy interest-bearing securities and stocks that will provide a sufficient income. He plans to move to neighboring Finland, where he hopes to buy a small cottage. Vanya is stunned at his words and lets loose with all the vitriol and pent-up rage he has been feeling. He tells Serebryakov that his father purchased the house for his daughter, Vanya's sister, when she married Serebryakov. His father did not have enough cash for the full purchase price so he took out a loan for 25,000 rubles. Vanya gave his share of his inheritance to his father to pay for the house for his sister. He has been running the estate for the past 25 years and has paid off the debt, only receiving 50 rubles a year. He is enraged that Serebryakov now wants to throw him out of his home and that he has never once thanked Vanya for his work. Serebryakov pleads ignorance, claiming he is "not a practical man" and had no understanding of "these sorts of things." Perhaps most of all, Vanya is angry because he spent the last 25 years of his life working so Serebryakov could make something of himself as a university professor, and he basically failed to do that. Vanya accuses Serebryakov of destroying his life and declares him his "worst enemy."

After expressing all his rage, Vanya degenerates into a crying mess and leaves the room. Serebryakov tells everyone to "keep that lunatic away" from him and declares he "will not live with him in the same house." Yelena declares they will move that day. Sonya urges her father to make peace with her uncle and reminds him of all the work both she and Vanya have done on his behalf. Serebryakov agrees to make up with Vanya and leaves to go find him.

Out of desperation to do something, Vanya fires at Serebryakov twice with an old revolver, missing both times. He then throws the revolver down. A stunned Serebryakov looks on while a frazzled Yelena cries out for anyone to take her away immediately as she "cannot stay here" any longer.

Act 4

Later in the day the household members say their goodbyes to Yelena and Serebryakov, who have decided to leave the estate that day. They are moving to another city, Kharkov, and will send for their possessions to come separately. No one is sorry to see them leave. Telegin tells Marina, "They just weren't made to live here. Not cut out for it." Marina agrees, saying it is "better for them." She looks forward to the household returning to its normal routines.

Several people look for Vanya, fearful he intends to harm himself. Telegin has hidden his revolver in the cellar, but he has a vial of morphine he stole from Astrov. When Astrov finds Vanya, he demands his morphine back. He tells Vanya if he wants to kill himself to shoot himself rather than use his stolen drug. Sonya persuades Vanya to return the morphine. She gives her uncle a speech on living out his life naturally no matter how unhappy he is.

Vanya decides he must start working immediately to get his mind off his feelings of despair. Yelena, however, seeks him out and urges him to say goodbye to Serebryakov. Sonya accompanies him so they can make up. Alone with Astrov—and knowing she can be open since she is leaving—Yelena admits she has "been a little bit attracted" to him. She hopes he will think kindly of her. Astrov replies by ripping into her for her idleness. He berates both her and her husband for having "infected" everyone with their idleness, saying that wherever they go, "destruction follows." Paying no attention to his words, Yelena takes a pencil off the workbench as a souvenir and leaves.

A group of people see Serebryakov and Yelena off. Before boarding the carriage, Serebryakov accepts Vanya's apology and extends his own. Vanya tells him he will continue to send the exact amount of money as in the past and "everything will be as it has always been." After they leave Vanya goes to his worktable and immerses himself in paying bills and getting life at the estate back the way it was before. Sonya tells Vanya that no matter how unhappy and dissatisfied he is, he just has to go on living. She says she, too, is unhappy, but she is going to live out her natural life and in the afterlife they will know peace.

Uncle Vanya Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 Vanya tells Yelena he loves her.

Rising Action

2 Vanya walks in on Yelena and Astrov in an embrace.

3 Serebryakov announces his plan to sell the estate.

4 Vanya goes on a rant about Serebryakov.

Climax

5 Vanya shoots at Serebryakov and misses.

Falling Action

6 Yelena and Serebryakov leave the estate.

Resolution

7 Vanya returns to work.

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