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Uncle Vanya | Themes

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Mundanity

The word mundane has two meanings, and both are themes of Uncle Vanya. One meaning is to be ordinary, dull, boring, and uninspired, and this describes how most of the characters perceive themselves and their lives. The setting is a provincial country town in Russia. With the exception of the shooting and a few "love" encounters, their lives lack drama and are characterized by the trivial events of their existence: sitting around, talking, waiting for meals, winding yarn, and going for walks.

Most characters are bored with their lives and yearn for something different. Vanya best describes the mundaneness of his life in Act 1 when he says all he does is "sleep, eat, drink. ... Not good at all!" Astrov, a country doctor, has a noble profession but detests the "provincial, Russian, small-minded existence" in which he lives. Serebryakov feels he is in a "burial vault" where every day he is "confronted by the same stupid people" and listens to the "same drivel over and over." He longs for his old life where he was a professor instead of his present life where "every minute seems to stretch on endlessly from the one before it." Both Astrov and Vanya drink to escape the mundanity of their lives. To Vanya, drinking "feels just a little bit like being alive." Yelena Andreevna is bored, too. She looks to men to elevate her out of her boredom. She was attracted to Serebryakov because he was "educated and well known," and she hoped he would make her life more interesting. He didn't, and now she is attracted to Astrov because she perceives him to be refined and elegant. She chooses not to act on this attraction and resigns herself to a life of boredom where she does not "have a single happiness on this earth."

The second meaning of mundane is earthly, or of this world rather than the heavenly world. Marina and Sonya are able to endure the mundaneness of their lives because they believe in an afterlife. They believe people will be rewarded in heaven with new, more exciting lives. In Act 1 Astrov asks Marina if people will remember them, expressing his desire to know his life has meaning. Marina responds by saying it does not matter if they do, "just so long as God does." Sonya similarly tries to relieve Vanya's angst in Act 4 after he tells her, "There's nothing left for me." She says they'll "keep on working for other people," but after they die, they'll "see a new life, bright and shining and elegant." The belief in an afterlife makes it possible for Marina and Sonya to endure the drabness of worldly life.

Futility and Loss of Hope

Futility is the sense that everything is meaningless, one's life has no purpose, and one's actions and ambitions do not matter. This is demonstrated by Vanya's poignant awareness of the futility of his love for Yelena Andreevna. In Act 2 he describes how meaningless his love for her is. Any joy he feels from loving her dies when he expresses his feelings because he knows his love is unrequited: "It's like sunlight falling into a dark hole."

Most of Chekhov's characters do not act as though they think they can change their situation. This is true of Vanya. Despite the pain he feels from Yelena's unrequited love, he does not think he has any choice but to continue loving her. He says telling her of his love is "killing" him, but he does not consider keeping his thoughts to himself or taking any other action to stop loving her. It is not just his feelings for Yelena that seem futile to Vanya. In Act 2 he expresses the futility of his entire life, saying, "My past was stupidly consumed in a million insignificant ways." Vanya reaffirms his sense of futility in Act 3 when he says his life is ruined and he does not think he can do anything to improve it. Astrov also feels an overwhelming sense that nothing matters. He is able to carry out his professional duties as a physician, but he has lost his ability to care about most things and people. In Act 2 he describes this futility by explaining that although he still appreciates beauty, he "can't get close to anyone," nor does he love anyone and he "wouldn't know how to fall in love."

Yelena, too, has a sense of futility. She looks to others to change her life rather than looking within herself. In Act 3 she tells Sonya she is bored, and Sonya suggests she help with the housework or teach or nurse the local children. Yelena declines, saying she is "not interested" and noting her lack of qualifications to teach or nurse anyone. She has never tried to learn how to do anything. Instead, she married someone hoping he would make her life more interesting. This did not work and she is unhappy, yet she keeps looking for others to change her world, not realizing she is the only one who can do that.

Vanya and Astrov have the sense that life has passed them by and they have lost the chance to make something out of it. They hold the conviction that life holds no opportunities, nor can it be changed or improved. Vanya describes this loss of hope in Act 2 when he tells Yelena Andreevna, "I have no past. My past was stupidly consumed in a million insignificant ways." This weighs so heavily on him that he tells her, "My own thoughts smother me. Thoughts of my wasted life." In contrast, he has just described how a storm refreshes the earth, with "everything in nature ... washed clean." His thoughts, however, cannot be washed clean. Vanya does not believe in the concept of a new day, a new opportunity. Nature can be regenerative, but he cannot be regenerated.

Vanya's frustration from his loss of hope reaches a peak when he attempts to shoot Serebryakov in Act 3. Just before, he expresses this feeling when he tells Serebryakov, "You have destroyed my life! I have never, ever lived!" He is angry not only for having worked in vain for Serebryakov, someone Vanya now thinks did not deserve it, but because he lost the "best years of [his] life" and "now it's all gone." Vanya's anger is intensified by his sense of hopelessness, his belief he cannot change his life and restore what he has lost.

Astrov also feels a loss of hope. He doesn't "expect anything out of life anymore" and feels no love for anyone. In Act 2 he uses the analogy of a light in the distance beckoning a tired traveler to describe this loss of hope. When one walks down a "dark path in the forest, and if there's just one tiny little fire flickering in the distance" it keeps the person going without noticing any tiredness or "branches scratching." Despite working hard, Astrov believes he is "suffer[ing] so much" and "there is simply no light ... at the end of that dark path." He tells Sonya, "It's too late for me, my time has passed."

Two views of hope are given in Act 3. Yelena offers to talk to Astrov to find out if he loves Sonya. Yelena thinks knowing the truth "is less terrifying than the unknown." She believes in knowing the truth no matter how painful it may be—or even if it extinguishes one's hope. Sonya's attitude is the exact opposite. She agrees to Yelena's offer of talking to Astrov to find out his feelings for her, but then she doubts her decision. Sonya tells herself, "It's better not to know. There's still hope." Sonya wants to hang on to hope despite all odds. Hope gives her something to live for, to keep going, even when she knows her dream will never be realized.

Love and Attraction

The play explores conceptions of love and physical attraction, lust, and desire. Astrov tells Sonya he is unable to fall in love, but he "can still recognize beauty." He realizes Yelena Andreevna's beauty "could turn [his] head," but he is aware "that's not love, it's not even close." Vanya is attracted to Yelena's beauty and youth. In Act 1 he tells Yelena, "You are my happiness, my life, my youth!" He knows he has "next to nothing" of a chance of having a loving relationship with her, but he doesn't want her love. He wants merely to "look at [her], hear [her] voice."

In contrast, in Act 2, Vanya ponders why he did not fall in love with Yelena 10 years earlier, when she was 17 and he was 37. He muses how if he had fallen in love and asked her to marry him then, she would be his wife now, and when "the storm would wake her," he "would hold her and whisper" to her not to be afraid. His attraction to Yelena goes beyond her physical beauty to encompass the concepts of concern and companionship. Yet is it love for Yelena in particular or the idea of being in love and having a mate that drives his thoughts? He appears to want love, but other than her beauty, Vanya does not mention any characteristic of Yelena that appeals to him.

Yelena, on the other hand, fell for Serebryakov because he was "educated and well known." Years later, she realizes her "love wasn't genuine" but she "believed it at the time." She appears to harbor strong feelings for Astrov, saying, "People like him are rare, they must be loved." She is impressed with him because he is a "free thinker [who] does things on a grand scale" and "sees the future happiness of humanity." Yelena is attracted to men whom she believes can elevate her out of the mundaneness of ordinary life. She thought Serebryakov's academic world would do this for her, but it didn't. Now she is attracted to the doctor, another man of talent and ideas. But is this love or something she seeks for her own selfish desires?

Sonya also harbors strong feelings for Astrov. In fact, she, unlike the others, is really in love with him. She regularly seeks opportunities to be with him. She engages in conversation with him, offers him food, walks him to the door, and invites him to stay over and to return soon. Just listening to him talk or remembering his visit makes her feel good. Of all the professions of love, hers appears to be the most genuine. She is drawn to Astrov both for who he is and how he makes her feel. In Act 2 she describes her giddiness of being in love, saying she "can still hear his voice, his footsteps" and "see his face in the dark glass of the window." Her thoughts of him make her happy and excited and make her want to fill her life with happy activities like piano music.

Creation versus Destruction

The theme of creation versus destruction is closely related to the themes of mundanity, futility, loss of hope, and love. It is the desire to create or make something as opposed to the inability to create and the damage that occurs as a result. In Uncle Vanya, this theme is expressed in how characters attempt to create something for themselves, create relationships with others, and create something external to make the world a better place.

In Act 2 Sonya and Yelena attempt to create a sense of shared happiness by playing the piano. Their hope to transcend their ordinary life is shot down when Sonya reports they are not allowed to play music because it will disturb Serebryakov.

Sonya wants to create a relationship with Astrov—she is in love with him and wants to spend time together. He, however, is not attracted to her, and her hope will not come to fruition. Astrov and Vanya each try to create a love relationship with Yelena, although neither is truly in love with her. Vanya knows his "chances with [her] are next to nothing," but he'll be satisfied if she'll just let him look at her and hear her voice. Astrov knows his attraction is superficial, and in Act 2 he expresses his dislike of Yelena, saying she "dazzles us with her beauty" but "she doesn't do anything." He faults her for her emptiness because she does not attempt to do anything with her life.

Astrov and Vanya have each created a fantasy about Yelena to fill a void within themselves. Astrov is burned out with work, and Vanya feels his youth has been destroyed. Both feel they have no more opportunities to create new lives for themselves. Vanya did not always feel this way, nor did Astrov. Vanya was content to work for something when he believed he was helping to create something through Serebryakov's work. But when he realized Serebryakov had not created anything of value during his entire career, Vanya feels his own efforts—and life—were wasted.

Astrov's true passion is planting trees and caring for his forests. He wants to preserve the trees so he can help to create a better world for future generations, and he deplores the destruction of trees for no purpose other than to harvest the timber. He could accept the loss of the forests if something of value replaced them, such as houses or roads. Instead, the deforested regions are ruined swatches of earth with poverty and disease. Astrov decries this rape of the earth's resources, believing humans have "destroyed almost everything and created nothing to take its place" and should instead "enhance that which [they are] given." Astrov calls on humans to do better with the vast world around them.

This theme also applies to the destructiveness of humans toward themselves and each other. Sonya calls out Astrov on his hypocrisy. Although he wants to create a better world for future generations, he is "destroy[ing] the beautiful things that [he's] been given," specifically his health, through drinking. She asks him, "Why would you want to destroy yourself?" Yelena tells Vanya, "Men like you recklessly destroy people the same way" people cut down the forests and destroy values such as faithfulness, purity, and self-sacrifice. Yelena decries not the destruction of the forests, but the way people damage their relationships with others and the harm this causes. She believes this is a graver danger and "the world will end not because of war, or disasters, but because of hate."

Astrov is more inclined to think idleness will have a more destructive effect on humankind than hate. In Act 4 he notes that wherever Yelena and her husband go "destruction follows." When they arrived at the country home, everybody was "working, busy as bees, creating something." But the country residents were "forced to throw it all aside" to "wait on" Yelena and Serebryakov "hand and foot." As a result, Yelena and Serebryakov have "infected" them with idleness. Astrov fears that if they were to stay at the country house, he "would be completely destroyed." He is glad they are leaving so he can try to get back to work as usual, which makes him feel he is doing something productive with his life.

Conservation

In Uncle Vanya Chekhov strays from his usual objective perspective when it comes to the environment. He expresses the need for the conservation of trees through Astrov's character, whose passion is the forest. He believes trees provide spiritual and social benefits to humans. He extols them because they "enhance the beauty of the land" and "instill in [humans] higher thoughts and feelings." Astrov thinks "forests soften a harsh climate" and make people more civilized, as the inhabitants of milder climates are "kinder and sweeter" and have more "refined" and advanced cultures. Astrov respects the environmental benefits of trees and is greatly concerned about deforestation in Russia. He abhors the loss of trees and advocates for their conservation to preserve the earth's beauty and resources both in the present and for future generations. Astrov has mapped the forests in the district where he lives for several decades and has noted the loss of forest coverage and decrease in animal life. He especially hates the use of timber for fuel and prefers peat instead, saying a person would "have to be a reckless barbarian to burn this kind of beauty in a stove" and explaining how doing so is "destroy[ing] something that cannot be recreated." He especially hates the "wholesale destruction of forests" that results in barren landscapes. He blames it on the "stagnation, the ignorance, the complete lack of self-awareness" of the common folks, noting they are "simply looking to make it through life" and take "whatever [they] can without thinking." In other words, because they are so consumed with the struggle for basic needs and survival, people "cannot think about tomorrow" and have no choice but to plunder the earth's resources for their own needs. This argument has survived into modern times and is used to justify deforestation in developing countries and to give preference to cost savings over environmental preservation methods in developed countries. In other worlds, exploiting Earth's resources is a necessity when it is for survival despite the harm to the environment.

Astrov wants to conserve trees for future generations, and he has a small forest preserve and replants trees in areas where they have been cut down. Yelena says Astrov does this because "He sees the future happiness of humanity."

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