by Anton Chekhov
Mikhail Lvovich Astrov
What's up, Doc? That's the question on everybody's mind in this tempest in a teacup. He doesn't even know it (or does he?), but Doctor Astrov is highly coveted among the inhabitants of the country house. The play opens with him and Marina talking. She fawns over him as though he were her own son
But that's not all. Astrov's quite a hit with the younger ladies, too. Yelena sums it up for us:
YELENA ANDREYEVNA: The Doctor has a nervous, exhausted face. An interesting face. Sonya is obviously attracted by him; she is in love with him and I understand her. (1.358-60)
Did you catch that? Sonya is in love with Astrov, and Yelena can totally see why. You might think it's strange that a nervous, exhausted face would be attractive. But we think that maybe what Yelena sees is a dude who thinks deeply about stuff and is all stressed out because he actually cares about things.
And think about who Astrov is up against in Yelena's mind: Serebryakov, who is pretty much a lounge lizard who will never be exhausted from hard work, because, well, he pretty much doesn't do any. So Astrov's exhausted face is a sign of his commitment to his work and the people that he helps. And that's hot.
Ahead of His Time
Astrov is totally into preserving the environment. Wait, what? In the late 1890s? That's right. You could confuse him for a tree-hugger a century later, the way he talks about the Russian forest and the need to save it from destruction. And, in case you were wondering, that was an unusual stance to take back in the day. Astrov himself knows it's true:
ASTROV: [...] And when they don't know what label to stick to my forehead, they say, 'He's a strange man, strange!' I love forests – that's strange; I don't eat meat – that's strange too. They have no direct, clean, free relationship with nature and with people… None, none! [He is about to drink.] (2.332-37)
So his tree-hugging, vegetarian ways might not please the majority of the people he knows, but Astrov is way ahead of the curve on the environmentalism stuff.
This preoccupation with the environment, and the long monologues he dedicates to it, give the play a little bit of historical context and background. They make it seem like it's really happening in a particular time and place. But it also helps us understand what makes Astrov stand out to some of the other characters in the play.
Astrov's alarmist mood goes along with the play's themes of social and economic change, and of people living off of the land and off of each other with no regard to the consequences. Just as the people are cutting down the forests to burn the wood and build houses with it, Serebryakov lets his mother-in-law, brother-in-law, and daughter work their fingers to the bone while he lives it up in the city.
It's kind of like Chekhov is saying that the country people are like the forests. They're seen as a limitless resource by the city people, who just burn through the money they receive without paying attention to where it's coming from. Of course, nothing lasts forever, and the forests and the estate will both disappear someday if someone isn't careful about conserving them.
(And history tells us that's pretty much what happened.)
A Little Vodka Never Hurt Anybody
One more thing we ought to mention about Astrov is his affection for alcohol. Boy, does he hit that bottle. Alcohol comes up almost every time Astrov's on stage, and this is kind of weird considering that this dude is a vegetarian doctor committed, you would think, to good health. But hey, this fella doesn't even seem to realize that he's a drunk.
Let's just do a quick montage of the times vodka comes up around the doctor:
MARINA: Perhaps you'd like a little vodka?
ASTROV: No. I don't drink vodka every day. And it's so close today. (1.8-9)
Okay, sounds innocent enough; he's refusing the drink. But just a few lines later the truth comes out:
MARINA: […] You were young and handsome then, and now you've aged. Also—you like your vodka. (1.18-19)
So which came first? Is Astrov kind of a drunk because he's aged and needs some solace, or has he aged because the bottom his vodka bottle is always up? Or a combination of the two? And almost as if to prove Marina's point, after a little while Astrov does ask for the vodka he had just refused, which makes us think that he probably does drink every day:
ASTROV: [...] [To the workman] Be a good chap and bring me a glass of vodka. (1.262-63)
Don't you just love it when your doctor gets ready for a medical emergency by drinking a glass of hard liquor? The fact that the Doctor just told Marina that he wouldn't drink shows how unconscious he is of his habit. (Or, you know, maybe he's just trying to hide it.)
Later he loses his attitude of being respectful to his environment due to, you guessed it, alcohol:
[Enter ASTROV in his coat, without waistcoat and tie; tipsy; followed by TELEGIN with a guitar.]
TELEGIN: Everyone's asleep!
Astrov's alcoholism really comes to the forefront in his exchanges with Sonya. She worries about the effect it has on him and others, and begs him not to let her uncle drink. He promises that they won't drink together, but later, on his own, he gets tight again. Who needs company?
So what's all this about? Why is this dude sloshing it up like there's no tomorrow? Sonya thinks it might because this doctor is trying to fit in and be like everyone else. Maybe he's just depressed?
SONYA: Why do you want to be like ordinary men who drink and play cards? Don't, I beg you! You're always saying that people don't create but only destroy hat is given them from on high. Why, why do you destroy yourself? You mustn't, you mustn't, I beg, I entreat you.
ASTROV: [giving her his hand] I won't drink any more. (2.342-47)
This promise seems to inspire hope, for a couple of reasons. Maybe Astrov will stop drinking, and maybe it's because he cares for Sonya.
Just kidding. If that's what you thought, you were wrong on both counts, because this was a classic drunk's promise. By the end of the play, Astrov's back to where he started, going along with the theme of nothing changing:
MARINA: [returning with a tray on which are a glass of vodka and a piece of bread] Eat. [ASTROV drinks the vodka.]Your good health, my dear. [Bows low.] And send it down with a little bit of bread.
ASTROV: No, I'll have it without… Good luck then! (4.315-20)
See what we mean? This is Astrov's final exit from the play, and the fact that he is now living off liquor, not even food, shows that he is hopeless, as far as his drinking goes. The play begins and ends, then, with Marina serving Astrov some vodka. This continuity shows us that life will continue on as though nothing had happened, even after the crazy events of the play.
This also shows that despite all of his progressive views, Astrov doesn't actually do much of anything to bring about change. Sure, he's better than most of these characters at seeing what's in trouble and what needs to be done to fix things, but all he really does in the end is get tanked because the problems are so big. In a way, he's just as bad as the other characters who sit around and preserve the status quo. And he's a guy who should really know better.