Posted by: zhiv | February 21, 2009

Chekhov #5: Uncle Vanya: First Impressions

I recruited my pal from college days, Older Igor, who grew up in Odessa, to read Chekhov with me. He agreed with my suggestion that we invite our gang to start a Chekhov Reading Club, saying “Chekhov would want it no other way.” Our first invite went out, appropriately, to our close mutual friend with an MD, Wiltzie, and I sent him this email:

Older Igor is reading Chekhov with me, which I’m very excited about. We want to form a “Mid-life Crisis Chekhov Reading Group,” the MCCRG if you will, and you of course are our first stop. Because of your intelligence and sophistication and we love you, not because of the profound depths of your mid-life crisis–don’t get me wrong.”

Wiltzie wrote back:

Sitting with DL RIGHT NOW in our hotel in NY. And… we’re seeing Uncle Vanya tonight!! I swear. I’m having a panic as I write this b/c I worry that I’ve already told you that we’re seeing UV but I’ve forgotten that I did, which yes, would send me further into my mid-life crisis, such as it is.

I must say that one of the amusing things about crossing over the hump of life–and of course there are not as many of them as one would like–is sharing it with the same deadenders that I went through adolescence and college and my 20s, 30s, and 40s with. I’m lucky to have a number of good friends.

So I came home on this Friday night and read the first act of UV, and then the second. And then I went over to another buddy’s house and hung out for a couple of hours. I came back and started going through my stuff, thought about writing and drawing, but settled in and read the second half of UV. I always forget what a pleasure it is to read great plays, especially since I read so many mediocre or generic screenplays. And even the best screenplays I read aren’t close to the quality of truly classic dramatic literature.

At any rate, after I finished reading Uncle Vanya I bumped around the kitchen for a few minutes, then checked my email. Older Igor had sent me this at 830:

Maybe we should read Uncle V next, to catch up to Wiltzie and DL. I could go for it.

And thus I had the exquisite pleasure, on top of the enjoyment of setting up a manageable reading project with my friends and then actually reading this fantastic play, of firing off a quick email saying “I finished it 15 minutes ago.” Obnoxious, I know. It was a tiny, petty, empty little victory, the type of thing that Chekhov writes so well about, a telling foible, and also the kind of thing he was completely immune to in his own conduct. Janet Malcolm quotes Gorky’s memoir of Chekhov, saying that AC was

One of the great things in Chekhov’s work, I find, is that he tells you how to live. He explores character and angst and frailty and self-deception and all sorts of other good stuff, much of it depressing and painfully true, but he finds clever and complex ways, using his characters rather than through a direct narrator, to tell us to be teachers, doctors, scientists, to help the poor, to plant trees and gardens and do good, to be kind to each other and try to play fair, at least, in the games of love and life that we are all bound to lose one way or another in the end.

Another thing I might mention here is that I find Chekhov to be eminently, almost ridiculously, quotable, something that hasn’t really come up in my previous blogging. It always seems easiest to use his own clear, exact words to illustrate the points one is trying to make, which makes it feel like commentary is superfluous and foolish. The stories (and plays) are short and perfectly accessible and all that needs to be said is “it’s great–read it!–you read it?–isn’t it great?–yes, it’s amazing, uncanny, so simple and so true!”

And I mention this in part because there are all sorts of “great,” fantastic, and true lines sprinkled throughout Uncle Vanya, along with some “amazing, uncanny” speeches and exchanges, and I want to go through it again with a pencil and sort through the whole of it in a systematic way (or not). It’s funny, I haven’t read any literature with a pencil in hand for a long time, although I write all over the scripts that I work on. And it’s Chekhov’s intense quotability, what I might call the crystalline quality of his writing, that is driving me to change my habits. It makes the same point: see, what did I just tell you, read Chekhov! he tells you what to do, how to live, he even makes you change the way you read! And I have a strong (and obvious) suspicion that reading Chekhov will make you (who, me?) change the way you write, and how you think too.

So, before the systematic breakdown (that will probably never happen) and going through with a pencil and having Chekhov take over, I wanted to lay out a couple of broad strokes on Uncle Vanya, a few initial impressions.

I mentioned in a previous post that I was completely unaware of Chekhov’s “attachment to nature,” let’s call it, before I read Janet Malcolm’s book. She quoted a line from Karlinsky…

As I became aware of this I started to get excited about it. I was just reading in Malcolm about Chekhov’s own horticultural pursuits, and his interest in gardens and nature appears prominently in “The Black Monk,” one of the stories that I read last week (last weekend?) that I haven’t gotten around to writing about yet. But Uncle Vanya strikes a direct blow on the nature theme, and Chekhov’s attitude or policy or philosophy, or whatever you want to call it, is nothing less than straight up environmentalism. Fine–on top of perfecting realism and using it to explore modern consciousness with surgical precision, while doing all sorts of other things, who knows what else, in his fiction, and creating modern drama, Chekhov also lays out the basic program for environmentalism here, in this play. Of course he does. Why wouldn’t he? It’s so simple and obvious, right?

But it really is uncanny how Chekhov writes about planting trees and forest preserves and disappearing nature and wildlife in such clear and prescient terms. I swear it’s as if he has just been waiting, like the rest of us, for the Bush Administration to be over so that the Interior Dept. and the EPA could go back to doing their jobs again, so that science could take its rightful place overruling superstition. It seems like it wouldn’t be surprising at all for him to start writing about Walmart and corn sweetener, climate change and sustainability and alternative energy and independence from foreign oil. There’s a significant movement forward in Chekhov from Thoreau–he outlines both a specific program of restoration and a critique of the encroachment of human society on nature. Chekhov makes a subtle advance, the move from natural history and observation to environmentalism, active preservation and restoration, “second nature,” Michael Pollan’s phrase that Janet Malcolm mentions. It reminds us that Chekhov is from a true fin de siecle figure, a contemporary of the later, Sierra Club-founding John Muir, in the same generation as Frederick Law Olmstead, Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt. He wasn’t alone or a lone voice, but I think it’s safe to say that he was the only hard core pioneering environmentalist who effortlessly folded his concerns and program into prophetic, classic drama.

I happen to love environmentalism in all its forms, and have even planted a few trees in my time–though I’m ready to rush out and start planting them by the hundreds now, “fired up, ready to go,” because of Chekhov–so that issue is my banner headline from Uncle Vanya, but it’s hardly the primary concern of the play. Environmentalism is really just an incidental comment of sorts in a story about characters in conflict with each other and themselves, struggling to manage life and disappointment and experiencing the gnawing pain of modern consciousness. The true headline of the play is the characters, their dilemmas and depth. They are exactly like us, and yet they are timeless and very Russian and deeply rooted in their native soil and circumstances and folk ways. A small handful of characters presents an astonishing range of family and romantic relationships. Every character is “about” something, representative of an attitude and approach to life and a certain fate and set of circumstances, but they interact and respond to one another in completely recognizable, unforced ways. It’s just a random little group hanging out at a country house, bored and chatty, nothing much to see here or to care about. Yeah, right.

It will be quite interesting to break down the characters and their interactive effects, as they make a fascinating equation. My inclination is to start with the Professor, Alexandr Serebryakov, now a complaining, selfish old man, a minor celebrity in his day who has a trophy wife of sorts. All kinds of things might be said about the Professor to begin, but overarching all of them is the meaninglessness and failure of his life’s work. His criticism and analysis and philosophizing have amounted to nothing. The fact of this is an important, profound statement within the play. It forms an odd contrast, it should be said, to Chekhov’s general celebration of teachers, and there’s even a promotion of teaching within the play, when Sonya tells Yelena Andreevna that she should be useful and teach, and says that it would be hard to start but she would get used to it. But apparently there’s a distinction between teaching and being a professor, between educating youth and the masses, and engaging in higher academics and criticism. In the climax, when Vanya is freaking out and confronting Serebryakov, he says “You write about art, but there isn’t a single thing in art you understand.”

A couple of intriguingly similar characters come to mind. The character Casaubon, in Middlemarch, married to Dorothea Brooke, suggests how George Eliot was something of a towering genius predecessor to Chekhov, especially as one remembers how Lydgate was a doctor: there’s an old critique that George Eliot was a lesser Tolstoy and a successor to Jane Austen because there are no armies and battles in her novels, but Middlemarch is much more “Russian” than I ever would have guessed. I know now, from Chekhov and his life, as well as his work, and Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons as well–which was a pre-blogging read that I should do a glancing post about at some point–that doctors mean something in literature, certainly more than I thought when I read Middlemarch 30 years ago. And you don’t find medical men in Dickens or Thackeray. Lydgate’s relationship with Rosamond Vincy, and the way Eliot carefully preserves Lydgate’s distance from Dorothea, seems to prefigure Chekhov. There’s no modern consciousness in Middlemarch, though it certainly stands on the doorstep, but the failure of Casaubon as an academic and philosopher is profound, especially when combined with his failure as a husband. Chekhov covers the same territory here, and as “The Lady with the Dog” is Anna Karenina in crisp shorthand, reaching a different, modern, and perhaps a more truthful and evocative conclusion, Uncle Vanya has the same relationship to Middlemarch.

Part of Chekhov’s trick is to leave out the beginning and the end, and to tell everything through a representative slice taken from the center of a life and characters and story, like a slide under a microscope. So Uncle Vanya is the story of Middlemarch told in a couple of days at a country house. Eliot’s novel explores in detail what happens after Casuabon’s death, as well as everything that comes before it: the reasons why Dorothea marries Casuabon are an amazing analysis of Victorian female identity. In UV, Yelena Andreevna is simply married to Serebryakov, and we get it. Her character and motives are perhaps even more intriguing than Dorothea’s, as she’s simply a beautiful woman who married a great man who turned out to be a fraud. Dorothea’s spiritual yearning is in this alternative case explored as bourgeois shallowness, and the narcissism of Yelena Andreevna’s romantic attraction to her dynamic closer contemporary Astrov, the tree-planting doctor, is revealed, rather than her nobility. Like a science experiment, the dramatic compression here yields different results, and they’re quite telling and seem more like real life; this is modern literature.

In Middlemarch Casaubon dies and Dorothea slowly sorts painstakingly through her conflicts and motives for loving Will Ladislaw. Here, Vanya becomes unhinged and goes for his gun and shoots at Serebryakov. The crucial fact is that he misses, and the old Professor lives on. It’s a fascinating twist on the dramatic rule that if you put a gun on the mantlepiece you have to use it, which Chekhov exercises in UV’s predecessor The Seagull, if I remember correctly. Think about how Vanya has to go hunting for the gun offstage, and how it’s used to gain seemingly no effect. Everything is changed, but everything is still the same. Even though no one dies or even comes close to injury, the gun is actually used to make a painful expression of the emotional state and history of Vanya. Through the firing of the gun, we become aware that Vanya is the center of the play that bears his name.

At some point last year someone (Verbivore, I think it was) commented on how it’s a fun part of blogging when books start talking to each other, as Middlemarch and Uncle Vanya are doing here. Another character and book that “talks to” Professor Serebryakov, one that comes after UV, is Mr. Ramsay and To the Lighthouse. And it’s possible thereby to make the connection between George Eliot and Virginia Woolf and their “big books,” their masterpieces, between the failed thinkers Casaubon and Mr. Ramsay, something I don’t remember ever having done before. I generally think of Ramsay primarily as Leslie Stephen, Woolf’s father and the subject of my unwritten dissertation. But it’s deeply problematic to read literature so consistently as autobiography, and Ramsay is quite effective as a representative failed, self-absorbed Victorian scholar and philosopher. Woolf, using full-blown modernist technique, gets us into Ramsay’s consciousness and his lonely frustration at his inability to establish a viable philosophical system, and the isolation of his knowledge that his work and effort are meaningless and will be forgotten. We don’t get inside Serebryakov in the same way. But the effects of Ramsay’s character, and the narcissism of scholarship and philosophy, are felt throughout To the Lighthouse in much the same way as in Uncle Vanya and Middlemarch. Just another thing to think about.

Very curious to see now what Woolf has to say about “Tchekhov”–time to sort through the shelves. And that’s a start at least, a few preliminary impressions and thoughts.


  1. I thought the gun incident was a kind of comic relief, but also a metaphor for tragic futility of action. As the old nanny later says, everything will go back to the way it was, as if nothing happened.

    I too was struck by Chekhov’s prescient environmentalism. But I can’t agree with you about his general prescriptions on how to live right. His romantic notions of a better world populated by idealistic people engaged in noble pursuits belong very much to his time and place. The irony of his age is that the seeds of the noble vision of a just world matured into the unimaginable horrors in the years ahead. The 20th century, I think, destroyed all hope that Utopian ideologies can save the world.

    I admire Chekhov much more for his dead-on portraits of people in all their human glory and folly, mostly folly. His slightly detached but compassionate stance toward his characters, warts and all, has a universal, timeless appeal. Utopian longings aside, Chekhov’s people are forever stuck with those messy human lives that make great stories in the right hands.

  2. Hmm–interesting question: “His romantic notions of a better world populated by idealistic people engaged in noble pursuits belong very much to his time and place.” My sense is that there’s an occasional hopefulness, which leaks out on occasion from the “slightly detached but compassionate stance,” but he doesn’t seem to have standard utopian longings. When I mention his prescriptions, I’m thinking more in terms of basic practical advice like “be a teacher, not a narcissistic professor,” or be a doctor/scientist, kind of the way that Ivanich and Burkin are thinking that Alekhin would have been happier as a doctor/scientist instead of running around his estate like “a squirrel on a wheel.” They don’t say, oh, it’s so sad that he didn’t run away with what’s her name. There’s a great section in Vanya when they’re dissecting Yelena’s idleness, and how it is like a virus. It seems like he’s suggesting, in a mild, offhand way, how bourgeois angst feeds on itself, so it’s better to keep busy, to build schools, plant gardens, etc., and keep it simple.

  3. You’re right, utopian longings are not central to Chekhov. They are hardly even peripheral, and I probably overstated that point. I guess I’m trying to say I’m with Chekhov while he’s showing, but I lose him when he starts telling. Even though his message is purely benign (“do good”) I could do without the soapbox. Just stick with the frickin’ story, Anton, and leave the prescriptions out of it. Know what I mean?

  4. This makes me want to put down everything I am doing, or supposed to be doing, and pick up Uncle Vanya.

    You say, ‘But it really is uncanny how Chekhov writes about planting trees and forest preserves and disappearing nature and wildlife in such clear and prescient terms.’ The full-on environmentalism of say Thoreau and Emerson, became a love of and a listening to Nature in Whitman, Frost, Stevens and WCWilliams. The poets have always claimed that territory but when you think about the dramatists of the twentieth century – Miller, for instance – isn’t it there too? In O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night the only time there is a sense of community is off stage and peripheral to the plot but it’s when the Tyrone men are cutting the hedge and chatting to passers by: all else happens in the suffocating interior of that drawing room. In Death of A Salesman there is the reference to the trees being cut down and then there’s Miller’s final description of ‘the darkening stage as over the house the hard towers of the apartment buildings rise into sharp focus’…..I could go on but I think I’m being a bit obvious and straying too far from your subject.

    What I mean is that what you see in Chekhov’s writing about nature is everywhere in great literature. The Russians, the French, the English but especially, latterly, the great Americans.

  5. I do think this is when literature really pays off (although that metaphor is weak), when the books and characters and writers all begin to be part of some wonderful, complex orchestra.

    I’ve been slowly working my way through Chekhov’s stories and each one is a reward unto itself. Beautiful little worlds.

  6. I was so pleasantly surprised to stumble upon this blog by searching for “Uncle Vanya and Middlemarch.” I just finished Uncle Vanya and was so enthralled with the various connections between the two works, I immediately sought similar minds on the subject (or perhaps validation of my theory – who can say?!?) I have so enjoyed your blog, your ideas, and the deeper connections you have made between these two great works. I particularly liked your line: “Part of Chekhov’s trick is to leave out the beginning and the end, and to tell everything through a representative slice taken from the center of a life and characters and story, like a slide under a microscope.” This is Chekhov’s genius! There is so much communicated through tone (that unbearable tension of every “unhappy family,”) short dialogue, and lack of relief (2 missed pistol shots! Will this ever end?) This 4 act play forces us to interact with the larger themes explored in depth in Middlemarch. I wanted to briefly explore Elena’s unrevealed attachement to the professor. Due to the “en medias rea” nature of Chekhov’s play, we do not watch their relationship enfold as we do in Eliot’s case. However, I wonder if, like Dorothea as well as Masha (from Three Sisters,) if Elena is duped into the marriage because of a youthful naivety and admiration of the Professor and the importance of the work, then rather slowly awakened to his actual and utter failure (and hers then by association.) We see this character archetype throughout Chekhov and Eliot as well as this genre and era of literature. I enjoy how Chekhov captures all that these women understand and endure so effortlessly. What do you think happens during the final parting scene between Elena and Astrov and why is it important?

  7. Thanks for this blog. The similarities with Middlemarch was also on my mind and found your article searching for both. Another interesting parallel is to see Sonya’s monologue as an answer to the To be or not to be monologue, but it’s far from a satisfactory answer. 😉

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