by Anton Chekhov
Aleksandr Vladimirovich Serebryakov
Grouches of the World, Unite
If we had to make a puppet of Professor Serebryakov, he'd probably end up looking like this. In a word, Serebryakov is grouchy. In a few more words, he's a know-it-all, he's oblivious, and he's an overall jerk.
But don't take our word for it. Check out what the people around him have to say! We get our first hint that Serebryakov is selfish through a conversation between his first wife's brother and the nyanya, Marina:
VOYNITSKY: [...] Ever since the Professor came to live here with his wife, my life has left its track…
MARINA: [shaking her head]: What a way to live! [...] At night the Professor reads and writes, and suddenly he rings after one in the morning… I ask you gentlemen. For tea! Wake the servants for him, put on the samovar… What a way to live! (1.59-72)
Okay, so Serebryakov is disruptive and kind of lazy, and doesn't respect the lives of the people around him. What a way to live, indeed. This attitude is really the basis for the play's conflict: old Serebryakov is taking advantage of the country folks, and they're ticked about it.
And if you think that Serebryakov is just a grouch, just wait till you get a load of his hypochondria. He's sure good at making everyone drop everything and take care of him, but he barely acknowledges the help and care that they're providing. He would rather moan and groan than be grateful.
ASTROV: [to Yelena Andreyevna]: I actually came to see your husband. You wrote that he's very ill, rheumatism and something else, but he turns out to be pretty fit. [...] And I killed myself galloping thirty versts. Well, no matter, it's not the first time. (1.176-81)
Once again, Serebryakov shows his total lack of respect for anyone else's time and calls Astrov in when actually he's fine. This dude's not sick; he's just super selfish.
So this chump is selfish, disrespectful, and a hypochondriac. What's next? Oh, yeah: he's a real jerk. Take this scene where he lets it rip on Yelena, for instance. She's taking care of him like a good wife one night, and what does the old Prof have to say about it?
SEREBRYAKOV: [...] I'm not stupid and I understand. You are young, healthy, beautiful, you want to live, and I am an old man, almost a corpse. [...] It turns out that thanks to me, everyone is exhausted and bored and wasting their youth, while I'm the only one to enjoy life and have satisfaction. Of course. (2.31-40)
Serebryakov acts like he understands Yelena and her problems, but he's really just feeling sorry for himself. He's using the classic guilt trip irony that moms and grandmas are so good at.
But what's behind all this grouchiness? Read a little bit further into that guilt trip, for one thing, and you might see that Serebryakov doesn't actually believe what he's saying. He knows that that's what everyone thinks: that he's wasting Yelena's life, that he's old, that everyone is spending their lives working for him while he's out on the town. But he thinks everyone is wrong.
But let's think about who this dude really is. First of all, he's a geezer with a hot young wife. He swoops in with her from the city and throws everybody off schedule ordering tea at all hours of the night, and then, to top it off, thinks that he'll sell a house that isn't even his in order to go live in Finland. He's cranky, mean, and barely acknowledges anybody around him. And this guy is a brilliant professor? How can he be so smart and not even understand the people around him? (Yeah, yeah, we know: professors aren't always the best at understanding real people. Doesn't make it any better, though, does it?)
The fact is, Serebryakov is an intellectual who doesn't do any productive work, like building or manufacturing anything, or saving people's lives, or fighting for social change. He just sits around writing and has nice, pretty life thanks to the people who do bust their butts. And in Russia at that time, being an idler living off of other people was starting to become really uncool. Looks like Serebryakov missed that memo.
And by the way, are we so sure that this guy is actually all that brilliant? Or is his scholarship just as old and narrow as he is? Here's what Vanya has to say about it:
VOYNITSKY: [...] Here he is in retirement, and now one can see the sum total of his life: not a single page of his labours will survive him, he's completely unknown, he's nothing! A soap bubble! I was deceived… I see it—deeply deceived… (2.202-05)
Now, we find it kind of hard to believe that someone this out of touch would have anything that great to say. Maybe Vanya is partly right when he says that Serebryakov and Serebryakov's ideas ruined his life.
The long and short of it is that Serebryakov spends most of the play feeling sorry for himself. He thinks that he's misunderstood, and that's why he acts like a big, spoiled baby. And that's just his problem. The other characters are right about him. And by blaming everyone else for his problems, Serebryakov is just like every other character in the play. He's totally set in his ways and won't lift a finger to change a thing.