Study Guide

Uncle Vanya Guilt/Blame

By Anton Chekhov

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YELENA ANDREYEVNA: When you speak of your age your tone is as if we were all to blame for your being old.

SEREBRYAKOV: You are the first to find me repulsive. (2.27-29)

Serebryakov is acting like a big baby. He's old, sick, and uncomfortable, and doing everything he can to let everyone know. If he can make them feel miserable while he's at it, even better. Of course, that's no way to live, and it just makes everyone wish they could avoid him. But ye gods, his wife had better not actually confirm any of the nasty (but true) things he says about himself. Sounds like the old geezer is just fishing for compliments—but compliments he totally doesn't deserve.

YELENA ANDREYEVNA: How long are you going to be offended with me? We've done no harm to one another. Why be enemies? Let's stop it… (2.394-96)

Yelena is speaking to Sonya here, and her plea, to become friends, is quite a big deal when you think about how fraught relationships with stepmothers can be. She feels that Sonya is "offended" with her, but that feeling of guilt or blame seems to be unfounded because they haven't done any "harm" to each other. Maybe just marrying Sonya's father makes Yelena feel a little guilty toward the girl. And let's face it: she also probably feels guilty that she's so much hotter than Sonya. It's kind of nice of her to feel that way, though it doesn't really change anything.

YELENA ANDREYEVNA: Probably some matter of business.

VOYNITSKY: He has none. He writes rubbish, grumbles and is jealous, that's all. (3.8-10)

Yelena and Vanya want to figure out why Serebryakov, everyone's favorite hater, has called a family meeting. And of course, Vanya doesn't lose the opportunity to throw some hate on his rival. His accusations, that Serebryakov has no business, that he's bad at his work, unpleasant, and also jealous, shows that he blames Serebryakov for his own failures in business and love.

YELENA ANDREYEVNA: [in anger] Leave me in peace! You're so cruel! (3.44-45)

Yelena accuses Vanya of cruelty because of the way he incessantly tries to get her to love him. He, of course, would blame her for being so attractive, and for being married to such a horrible old man; she blames him for not letting her be. It's funny that Vanya never sees what a difficult position he's putting Yelena in. In a lot of ways, he's just as selfish as old Serebryakov.

YELENA ANDREYEVNA: [taking him by the hand] You don't love her, I can see it in your eyes… She is suffering… You must understand that and… stop coming here. (3.211-13)

Talk about mixed messages. Just as she's taking Astrov on a guilt trip for leading Sonya on, she's leading him on by taking him by the hand. She's also confirming, probably as much for herself as for Sonya, that he is not interested in the younger girl and blaming him for Sonya's suffering.

YELENA ANDREYEVNA: Phew, what an unpleasant conversation! I'm in such a state I feel I've been carrying a thousand pud load. Well, thank God, it's over. (3.216-18)

Really, Yelena? A thousand puds? In case you're wondering, a pud, or pood, is a Russian unit of weight measurement equal to just under 36 pounds. So Yelena's guilt feels like around 18 tons to her. And why does she feel the weight of a few elephants on her shoulders? Because she's got a crush on the same guy that her stepdaughter does, she's, ahem, married, and the crush likes her back.

ASTROV: [...] Please don't look surprised, you know very well why I come here every day… Why and for whom I come, you know full well. Dear predator, don't look at me like that, I'm an old sparrow… (3.231-34)

All the lovey-dovey back-and-forth between Astrov and Yelena has been completely deniable up until this point. But Astrov has decided to bring it out into the open, naming the feelings they have for each other, and, while he's at it, blame Yelena for everything. By calling her a "predator" and himself a "sparrow," he compares them to the wild, animal kingdom, where she's hunting his poor, innocent self. It's one more way of taking the blame off them: if their love is somehow in the natural order of things, then they can't very well resist it, right?

SEREBRYAKOV: 'Serebryakov'… ? Why are you angry, Vanya?

[A pause.]

If I've offended you in anything, please forgive me. (3.313-15)

Everyone seems to have a beef with at least one other person in this play: Vanya with Serebryakov, Astrov with Yelena, Sonya with Yelena… but Serebryakov is oblivious. In this exchange, Vanya has called him by his last name, "Serebryakov," instead of being informal and using his first name. By calling him the informal "Vanya" in return, Serebryakov shows just how unaware he is of how much Vanya blames him for his failures. This could also be read as insolence on Serebryakov's part, because it's totally normal for a subordinate (like a student) to use a formal name and a powerful person (like a teacher) to use the informal name in return. It's like Serebryakov is asserting his own authority over Vanya, even if that's not what Vanya was trying to get at in the first place.

VOYNITSKY: [...] You have destroyed my life! I haven't lived, I haven't lived! Thanks to you I wasted, I destroyed the best years of my life! You are my worst enemy! (3.435-38)

We beg to differ. Vanya's going nuts, screaming at Serebryakov for destroying his life. But, really, what did Serebryakov do? Give Vanya clues to his crimes before he committed them, like the Signaler? Sure, Serebryakov's a selfish jerk, but why didn't Vanya take some responsibility and live his life? Oh, wait: because nobody in this play does that.

SONYA: [...] You must be merciful! [...] I and Uncle Vanya worked without any rest, we were afraid to spend a kopeck on ourselves and sent everything to you… We earned our keep! I don't mean that, I'm not saying it right, but you must understand us, Papa. You must be merciful! (3.468-75)

Sonya echoes her uncle's complaint, but in a completely different way. Where Vanya screams and yells, Sonya begs for mercy. The thing is, though, she also blames her father for the way their lives have turned out. Both of them are acting like martyrs and blaming Serebryakov for their problems, but they refuse to see how their own complacence has entered into the picture.

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