by Anton Chekhov
Yelena Andreyevna, (Hélène, Lenochka)
A lot of what we know about Yelena Andreyevna, the wife of Serebryakov, we learn from what other people say about her. She's kind of a mysterious figure, because she's the newest addition to the family, so of course everyone has an opinion about her. Also, she's a woman, and at this time and place women just aren't expected to speak for themselves.
This outsider position, of course, puts her right in every busybody's sights. And everyone seems to have an opinion. Let's just go down the list.
First up: Vanya. Uncle Vanya, as we mentioned in his character analysis, is cuckoo for Yelena.
VOYNITSKY: But how lovely she is! How lovely! in all my life I've never seen such a beautiful woman! (1.96-97)
Got that? She's pretty, a looker, hot stuff, smokin'… the play is full of references to just how sexy Yelena is, and it drives all the country folk wild. Of course, the fact that she's married to the big-shot Serebryakov just makes her that much more attractive. Why? Because she's off-limits.
Next, we got Astrov. Vanya's not the only one who notices Yelena's good looks. Doctor Astrov is also into Yelena, but he's wondering if maybe her beauty is only skin deep.
ASTROV: A human being should be beautiful all through: face and clothes and spirit and thoughts. She is beautiful, no question about that, but… she just eats, sleeps, walks, enchants us all with her beauty—and that's all. She has no responsibilities, others work for her… It's true, isn't it? And an idle life can't be a virtuous one. (2.301-06)
Astrov echoes the worries and accusations of Marina, Vanya, and Sonya when he wonders whether or not Yelena's complete and utter lack of activity might reflect badly on her character. You know what they say… idle hands are the devil's workshop. It makes you wonder, too, if she and Serebryakov have maybe a little too much in common. Two idlers mooching off of everyone else and causing trouble wherever they go? Sounds like a great couple.
Finally, we'll hear from Sonya. Yelena's stepdaughter (who can't be too much younger than she is) is no gossip; she says what she thinks to Yelena's face. She's pretty much like, "Hey, Yelena, you're kind of a lazy bum, don't you think?"
SONYA: [...] You're bored, you can't find a role for yourself, and boredom and inactivity are infectious. Look: Uncle Vanya does nothing and just follows you round like a shadow, I've left my work and come running to you to talk. [...] Doctor Mikhail Lvovich used to visit us very seldom, once a month, it was difficult to persuade him, but now he drives over here every day [...] You must be a sorceress. (3.30-37)
Sonya's trying to be nice, but she's got a point about Yelena's power to screw up everyone else's life. The combination of her beauty and her idleness make her a deadly element for the hardworking, love-starved people in the play. As Sonya so charitably puts it, maybe she's just a witch.
Speak for Yourself
Of course, you can't just trust what other people say about Yelena. She's got her own mind. And we can't help but think that everyone's a little bit hard on her. Seriously, just because she and Serebryakov sleep in and stay up late, does that really mean that everyone else is magically forced to do so too?
When we hear her side of the story, we find out why Yelena is the way she is. For one thing, she calls out Vanya for macking on her when she's a married woman:
YELENA ANDREYEVNA: Ah yes, indolence and boredom! Everyone criticizes my husband, everyone looks at me with pity: unhappy woman, she has an old husband! That sympathy – I understand it well! [...] Why can't you look at a woman neutrally if she isn't yours? (1.345-53)
Oh, snap! Yelena is pointing out that everyone sees her not as an independent human being, but in relationship to the men around her. Either they pity her for having an old, grouchy husband, or they desire her for themselves. Or both, which is the path that Vanya takes.
People keep dissing Yelena for her lazy attitude, but she explains why she hasn't made the effort to meet the people at the country estate, and it's kind of a doozy:
YELENA ANDREYEVNA: [...] Sonya is obviously attracted by [Astrov]; she is in love with him and I understand her. Since I came he's already been here three times, but I'm shy and I haven't talked with him as I should, I haven't been nice to him. He thinks I'm ill-natured. (1.359-62)
Wait a minute… Yelena understand why Sonya is in love with the Astrov. Does that mean that she is attracted to him as well? Hey, why not. We know she's unhappy with that the old grouch Serebryakov. But she's not going to be a bad wife and go after Astrov, and she's not going to betray Sonya, who has just confessed her love for Astrov and asked for Yelena's help.
This little comment basically goes by unnoticed by all the other characters, maybe because they don't imagine that Yelena, someone's wife, might have feelings, or maybe because they don't care about her feelings. By trying to do the honorable thing, though, Yelena shows that for all her other faults, she's at least got a little more backbone than most of the other characters in the play.
Speaking of that marriage, though: why did Yelena marry old Serebryakov, anyway? She's not particularly happy with him, and as she tells Sonya, she'd totally go for a younger man:
SONYA: I knew it. One more question. Tell me frankly—would you like to have had a young husband?
YELENA ANDREYEVNA: What a little girl you are still. Of course I would. [Laughs.] (2.432-35)
So why did she do it? Did she have to? Was she wowed by Serebryakov's fame and fortune? It's unclear, but it's hard to imagine that she had no other options. Sonya is an example of a young woman trying to choose her own husband; Yelena could probably do this, too. So it's hard not to see her predicament as at least partly the result of her own doing.
Now, Yelena may be mysterious, but she does give us hints about what she's thinking, and she even turns out to be the bravest character in the play, fending off the gun-slinging Vanya and fighting him for the pistol. The fact that everyone treats her like a doll, something to fight over, shows us a lot about the position of women on the eve of the 20th century in Russia. They don't have much will or agency of their own and are seen as possessions, something that can be passed between owners, er, husbands.
But still, if Yelena is so unhappy, why doesn't she change her life? How much control does she have over her circumstances? Let's not forget that another lady in the play, good old Mariya Vasilyevna, is totally into radical politics, which means that kind of thing was in the air. And it's true that there was a lot of experimentation going on in Russia at that time, with people trying out different kinds of relationships and different kinds of lifestyles. So, in theory, Yelena's not totally trapped. Does she just stick around because it's safe and comfortable? If so, she's got a lot more in common with the other characters in the play than we might have thought.