Study Guide

Uncle Vanya Dissatisfaction

By Anton Chekhov

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ASTROV: [...] Yes, and this life itself is boring, stupid, dirty… It drags one down. (1.25-26)

Wow, what a way to start the week. Doctor Astrov is not exactly the happiest guy on the planet, and his assessment of life (boring, stupid, dirty) might have something to do with his profession. At another point in the play he mentions a patient of his that died, and it seems that these professional disappointments really get to him and his possibilities for satisfaction.

VOYNITSKY: [...] You've got a retired professor, a dried-up old crust, a scholarly fish… Gout, rheumatism, migraine, a liver bloated from jealousy and envy… This old fish is living on the estate of his first wife, he has to live there because he can't afford to live in the city. He's always complaining about his misfortunes though in fact his luck is exceptional. (1.118-23)

Well, tell us how you really feel, Vanya! Our hero doesn't hold back in his assessment of Serebryakov, and the old, crusty fish's greatest crime seems to be not knowing how good he's got it. Everyone's working for him, when they could be working for the weekend, but he's too blind to see it and be happy about it.

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)

Vanya could check his pillow, buy a new mattress, and even move Astrov's work desk out of his bedroom, but we're pretty sure it wouldn't help. His insomnia is rooted in the deep dissatisfaction he feels when he reflects on his life. He feels that he's too old to make any changes, so the only thing he does is look back in regret.

VONITSKY: Lovely weather for hanging oneself… (1.242)

Okay, Vanya. Save the drama for your mama. His little suicide joke is, as we see throughout the play, not serious. He doesn't really want to hang himself, but he might like it if someone else, say, Serebryakov, did so. But the juxtaposition between the common phrase of "lovely weather for…" and the abrupt, unexpected "hanging oneself" is what really gives his sarcastic joke its punch. Even so, the mention of suicide leaves a bad taste in our mouths. It makes us realize that even though a lot of what happens is ridiculous and kind of pathetic, there are some serious issues underneath it all.

SEREBRYAKOV: [...] I want to live, I like success, I like fame, making a noise, and here it's like being in exile. To pine every minute for the past, to watch the success of others, to be afraid of death… I can't! (2.63-66)

Apparently no one ever told Serebryakov the old saying about "you can wish in one hand…". His wish list—for success, fame, and life—goes completely unfulfilled. Of course, we'll find out later that his dissatisfaction lies largely in his finances. He's unable to pay for his fancy city life, so the country estate really is like an exile for him.

SEREBRYAKOV: No one can sleep, everyone's exhausted, I'm the only one who's happy. (2.110-11)

Once again we're boarding the Sarcasm Express with these guys. When Serebryakov says that he's the only one who's happy and compares himself to the other people he's keeping at all hours taking care of him, he's actually trying to say that he's the least happy of all of them, because of his illness. Yeah, we know. The kind of joke only a professor would make.

[...] 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)

He's talking about his favorite subject here: Serebryakov loves to hate, but Vanya's also revealing a lot about himself here. What should he care if Serebryakov is "nothing"? Well, because he has been riding on Serebryakov's coattails all these years, living vicariously through him and thinking that it would bring him some kind of satisfaction. Now Vanya must face the hard reality that everyone must find their own satisfaction.

VOYNITSKY: Age is neither here nor there. When one has no real life, one lives by mirages. It's still better than nothing. (2.258-59)

Hm. We're not sure about Vanya's idea here. He thinks that it's better to just go through life believing in false hopes than to face the fact that those hopes are false. He thought he'd be repaid for his loyalty to Serebryakov, but he was wrong. Maybe he should have faced reality a little sooner.

ASTROV: [...] Like your Uncle Vanya I'm dissatisfied with life, and we're both becoming grouches. (2.308-09)

What a lovely pair. Poor Sonya is growing up with an elderly, possibly nutty grandma, her grouchy uncle, and she's chasing after Astrov, equally grouchy, and his love. The two men know that their unsociable dispositions come from their dissatisfaction but might not realize that they're passing it on to the next generation, to Sonya.

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)

This conversation between Sonya and Yelena represents a reconciliation, because up until now they haven't gotten along too well (not too unusual in the world of stepmothers and stepdaughters). What's kind of crazy is that when anyone opens up in this play, like they're doing here, they only reveal how dissatisfied they are with their lives. Also, hold up there: Yelena just said she'd like to have a young husband. Looks like she's officially got her Facebook profile linked up to the local FML page, too.

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