Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Anton Chekhov's UNCLE VANYA

Devoting your life to a worthy cause is a worthy way to spend your life. But what if one day you find out that the cause isn’t so worthy after all, and you’ve devoted most of your life to a sham? That’s what happens to Uncle Vanya. The play picks up soon after he’s found out that his whole life has essentially been wasted, along with the life of his niece Sophie. They’ve devoted themselves to the wrong cause. As usual, Chekhov picks up on all the subtle nuances of dysfunctional family relationships.

How about this one, for example? Early in the play Telegin (an impoverished landowner, nicknamed ‘Waffle’ because of his pockmarked face) sounds like a pretty decent guy when he blurts out optimistically: “The weather is delightful, the little birds are singing, we all live in peace and concord – what more could we want?” Well, the problem here is that Telegin doesn’t know what he’s talking about. There are complex problems seething just beneath the surface of this outwardly placid family life on the country estate. Telegin himself admits that “my wife ran off the day after our wedding with a man she loved. Since then I haven’t abandoned my duty. I still love her and am faithful to her.” This may be “peace and concord” but is it any way to live?

Then there’s Astrov, the educated but cynical doctor. He’s something of an environmentalist and has his own cause - “The forests of Russia are being wiped out…and all because lazy man hasn’t the sense to bend down and pick up fuel from the ground.” He has a broader vision of how things could be, how they ought to be, if only we weren’t so stupid, if only Russians didn’t aim so low in life. And even though he knows with his brain what should be done, his heart can’t find consolation from it. He’s painfully aware that “my brain is in the right place, but my feelings have somehow got blunted. I don’t want anything, I don’t need anything, I don’t love anyone.”

It’s among characters like these that Uncle Vanya lives out his mis-devoted life. Professor Serebryakov was supposedly a great man. Serebryakov’s wife Yelena thought so. Vanya thought so. Almost everyone thought so. They all worked and slaved away so the professor could pursue his scholarship in comfort. And yet, it turns out all a sham. Yelena says “I swear to you that I married him for love. I was attracted to this famous scholar. My love was not real, it was artificial, but I thought it was real then.” Vanya says “I worshipped the professor…I was proud of him and his scholarship…God, and now? Here he is in retirement, and now one can see the sum total of his life…he’s completely unknown, he’s nothing! A soap bubble! I was deceived…I see it – deeply deceived!” How can this be? How could this possibly have happened?

Good question. Why slave away to support someone like the professor, who says things like “I work all my life for learning, I’m used to my study, the lecture hall, colleagues I esteem – and then, I end up for no good reason in this tomb, …I like success, I like fame…” For years everyone put up with such nonsense because they were all convinced that the professor was a great man. But he wasn’t. Vanya sees it clearly - “think of this now. For exactly twenty-five years a man reads and writes about art, understanding precisely nothing about art…he reads and writes about things long known to the wise and of no interest to the stupid: so for twenty-five years he has been pouring from one empty vessel into another.” And the tragedy of all this is, to use a metaphor from another tale, that it took everyone so long to discover that the emperor had no clothes. By then it was too late. Lives were wasted, and there was no happy ending.

-- RDP


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