by Anton Chekhov
Ivan Petrovich Voynitsky, (Uncle Vanya)
I'm a Loser, Baby
Poor Uncle Vanya. He's got it rough. But what's not so rough for us is that if we can understand his character, we will get the point of the whole play. First of all, he's the title character, so Chekhov is telling us that he's kind of a big deal.
But right off the bat we notice that he's also kind of pathetic. He's been asleep all morning, he doesn't work, and he just gripes about his more successful brother-in-law all day. Keep that in mind as we unpack Ivan Petrovich Voynitsky, because the idea of putting a mediocre character front and center and the play's protagonist is important for what Chekhov is trying to do.
And what is Chekhov trying to do? We'll get into this a little more in our "Genre" section, but for now, take it from us: Chekhov wants to show everyday life in all its boring, minute detail. There are no epic heroes or nasty villains here. Chekhov's characters are way ordinary. They're real people in real situations, and for better or worse, they act pretty much like you'd expect real people to act in those situations.
During the second half the 19th century, Realism was all the rage in Russia. This was partly a reaction against Romanticism, which was all about high-class fancies and their highfalutin' dramas. Realist writers were into the nitty-gritty of everyday life. They tried to show normal folks from different social classes and different regions, and they tried to explore the important social issues of their time.
You might know some other famous Russian realists like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or Turgenev. These dudes are famous for their gigantic novels with huge casts of fascinating characters. Have you seen War and Peace? Over 1,000 pages of hot Russian Realism. Now, Chekhov wrote toward the end of the Realist period, and what made him different from the other big guys was that he wrote plays and short stories instead of huge epic novels. His stuff doesn't usually have big, huge conflicts or larger-than-life characters. Instead, a Chekhov story or play is more like a snapshot of everyday life. Just like in real life, not a lot actually happens.
Just Somebody's Uncle Johnny
So, who is this Uncle Vanya guy, anyway, and why is he the one being used to show us the reality of everyday life in rural Russia? First off, we know him by his relationships. In the list of characters at the beginning of the play, he's identified as Mariya's son. And since she's the mother of Serebryakov's first wife, we figure that Vanya is Serebryakov's brother-in-law.
Also, since Sonya is Serebryakov's daughter by his first marriage, that makes Vanya her uncle. So the title designation of "uncle" has to do with the relationship between Sonya and Vanya.
The fact that Chekhov didn't name the play "Ivan Petrovich" or "Voynitsky" or even "Vanya" but chose instead to include "Uncle" in the title tells us that a big, fat chunk of Vanya's character analysis will be based on his relationships to other characters. His personality, for the title, is limited by his relationship to Sonya. Chekhov doesn't even let the guy own the play that's named after him.
And what does that tell us? Well, for starters, it shows us that Vanya isn't really a hero or a self-made man or any of those independent-minded things that make a main character interesting. He's just somebody's uncle. Of course, we love uncles as much as the next website, but if you have a choice between being saved by Superman or by Uncle Larry, who would you pick? See what we mean?
That Professor Ruined My Life
This play is about mediocrity, the impossibility of change, and unrequited love. It's about a whole lot of dissatisfaction rolled up into a dreary, so-sad-it's-funny play. And Uncle Vanya is at the center of all this dissatisfaction.
He's in love with Yelena, who rejects him. He hates Serebryakov but completely depends on him. He hasn't done anything with his life, but he's convinced that he could have. He's the star of the show because Chekhov is criticizing exactly this type of mediocre, passive, unsatisfying life. And Vanya's lack of satisfaction has a lot to do with his relationships. (We're getting somewhere, just stay with us.)
So what's Vanya so upset and dissatisfied about? This is where the relationships come in. He's ticked off that his late sister's husband has all the money, glory, and women, while he's a sap who stayed at home to do all the work and support Serebryakov's lifestyle. That's it in one sad, bummed-out nutshell.
Let's look a little closer at Vanya's troubles with Serebryakov. In Act One, we see how much Serebryakov influences Vanya's life, even down to when he sleeps and eats:
VOYNITSKY: [...] [Yawns.] Ever since the Professor came to live here with his wife, my life has left its track…I go to sleep at the wrong time, for lunch and dinner I eat all kinds of rich dishes, I drink wine – that's all unhealthy. I used not to have a spare minute, Sonya and I worked – my goodness, how we worked, and now only Sonya works and I sleep, eat and drink… That's no good! (1.59-65)
We know that having company throws things off, but Vanya seems totally thrown off by the visitors. He's used to getting up early and working all day, being very careful about expenses, and sending all the estate's profits to Serebryakov. These intrusive city folk determine when he goes to sleep, when he eats, what he eats (which turns out to be unhealthy) and also whether or not he works. That's pretty powerful stuff.
(Serebryakov, on the other hand, sleeps in, stays up late, eats whenever he wants, and lives off the hard work of his daughter and brother-in-law. That just highlights the city mouse/country mouse differences that are also a source of the conflict in the "coming soon" Russian Revolution. (More on that here.))
So Vanya is none too thrilled about these people getting all up in his space. It makes him think about how lame his life is, and it brings to mind all the shoulda woulda couldas that haunt him. He argues with his mother about Serebryakov, because she dotes on Vanya's rival:
VOYNITSKY: [...] At nights I don't sleep from vexation, from anger that I so foolishly lost the time when I could have had everything that my age now denies me! (1.225-27)
Now, it would be one thing if Vanya were just ticked off that he'd wasted his life and decided to get some workout DVDs and stop eating so much. Unfortunately, he blames all of his troubles on the Professor. That's what we mean when we say that his relationships determine his dissatisfaction.
When he says that he "foolishly lost the time," he means that he spent his life working for Serebryakov instead of for himself. Vanya gets so angry about this he can't even sleep. He sure can eat and drink, though.
Serebryakov's success makes Vanya feel like a loser in comparison. Vanya's relationship with Yelena, the young, beautiful second wife of Serebryakov, shows us another aspect of his depressed personality. Really, Ivan's love for Yelena is part of his jealousy for Serebryakov; it's not exactly personal.
Listen to him complain about his brother-in-law's moves:
VOYNITSKY: Yes, I envy him! And he's so successful with women! [...] His first wife, my sister, a lovely meek creature [...]. His mother-in-law, my mother, still worships him and he still inspires her with a holy awe. His second wife, a beauty, a woman with a mind – you just saw her – married him when he was already old, gave him her youth, beauty, freedom, brightness. For what? Why? (1.140-49)
Did you notice that every time Vanya mentions one of Serebryakov's women, he immediately mentions how these women are related to him? "His first wife, my sister," says Vanya, and "His mother-in-law, my mother." It's like Vanya is constantly comparing himself to Serebryakov, who is constantly stealing his women. Serebryakov actually wins these women; Vanya has to keep reminding everybody that they're related to him.
Of course, Vanya can't say "my" anything about Yelena, Serebryakov's second wife, because she's not "his." But, boy, does he wish she were. He goes on and on about how awesome Yelena is: young, hot, smart, everything he could want. The fact that he will say all of this in front of other people shows that he's kind of lost his mind. Talking like that about someone else's wife isn't exactly socially acceptable.
Vanya's relationship with Yelena herself is kind of like Charlie Brown and the little red-haired girl. He tries and tries, but she's just not that into him. We admit, it's kind of hard to see why anyone would be into him, since all he does is complain. Even just a few seconds after he kisses Yelena's hand and calls her "My darling…wonderful woman!" (2.177), he starts talking smack about her behind her back:
VOYNITSKY: I used to meet her ten years ago at my sister's. She was seventeen then and I was thirty-seven. Why didn't I fall in love with her then and propose to her? I could have – quite easily! And she would now be my wife. [...] Why am I old? Why doesn't she understand me? Her rhetoric, her lazy moral strictures, her pointless, lazy thinking about the end of the world – I find all that deeply hateful. (2.182-92)
See what we mean?
Vanya goes from head-over-heels love for Yelena to hatred of her in one single monologue. No wonder he can't get a date. Vanya knows that Yelena is totally off-limits, but since she is hooked up with Serebryakov, he goes for her. Instead of going after what he says he wants, which is freedom and enough money to be independent, he goes after exactly what he can't have.
So basically Vanya's stuck because he's just not going to do anything to help himself out. While a bunch of other characters share this defeatist attitude, it reaches its peak in Vanya, who's the biggest bummer of them all. He's stuck in the past, dissatisfied with his present, and unable or unwilling to change his future.
A Shot in the Dark
The climax, or anti-climax, of the play revolves around Vanya. He's so worked up about Serebryakov's proposal to sell the estate that he decides to kill his former brother-in-law. But remember how we were saying that Vanya is unsatisfied and passive, pretty much mediocre? Well, this moment is a perfect definition for him as a character. Why?
You guessed it. He misses.
But, hey, wait. It gets better. He misses twice.
The old boy takes his first shot off-stage, but soon he and Yelena appear onstage, struggling. Of course, given that Yelena is a woman, and that we're talking 19th century, the fact that a girl is the one fighting him shows just how weak he is.
Now, Vanya does manage to win this wrestling match by shaking off Yelena. He's still got the gun, and now he goes running after Serebryakov again. So it's almost like he might follow through with a real action after all, right?
Wrong. Get a load of this:
VOYNITSKY: [...] Where is he? There he is! [Shoots at him.] Bang!
Haven't I hit him? Missed again? [Angrily] The devil, devil…devil take you.
[Hurls the revolver on the floor and sits down on a chair exhausted.] (3.431-36)
Yup, you read that right…he actually says "Bang!" And then, when he misses the second time, he just gives up. We get the feeling that he didn't really want to kill Serebryakov at all. Just like his quest for Yelena's love, he knows that he won't succeed and actually doesn't really try.
You could say that this is a turning point for the play and for Vanya's life. It's the moment where something BIG could have happened. We mean, hey: that was attempted murder, right? That's some big stuff. But nothing big does happen. All of these people—especially Vanya—complain a lot, but their fear of change hold them back from actually making an effort, taking a risk, and making improvements.
Now, Russia hadn't yet gone through its revolution, but people there were getting pretty discontent with poverty, class differences, and the system of imperial government. The play is kind of a microcosm of that frustration, with the lazy rich living off of the hard-working poor, but the hard-working poor just accepting their way of life without doing anything to change it. Of course, we just have to wait until 1917 and things will get wild, but around this time, in the late 1890s, things were just kind of stagnating and not going anywhere.Vanya's Timeline