Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

CHEKHOV: Uncle Vanya and Country Living

Many Americans get tired of the rat race of modern life and daydream about getting away from it all. Maybe get a little place out in the country somewhere, where nobody will bother you. Chekhov has a little piece of advice: be careful what you wish for, you may get it. You may get away from the hectic pace of modern living alright. You may also find yourself bored out of your mind. Anton Chekhov was a 19th century Russian doctor and author and had a deep understanding of human nature. His insights are just as true for Americans now as they were for Russians back then. The quest for leisure can lead to mere idleness. The search for relaxation can end up in sheer boredom.

The setting for Uncle Vanya takes place on a country Russian estate but could have taken place in almost any rural setting. It’s not the geographical location that makes the big difference. It’s the people. They don’t know what to do with themselves. The young wife of an old professor sums up the whole situation. ELENA: There is something very wrong in this house. Your mother hates everything…the professor is irritable…Sonya is angry…you hate my husband…I am on edge…There is something very wrong in this house. There is indeed something very wrong in the house. But it’s not the house’s fault. It’s the people. Elena goes on to say I’m dying of boredom. I don’t know what to do. Of course when you live out in the country there’s plenty to do. There are always chores to be done. Or she could teach or nurse the peasants. But she doesn’t want to do that kind of work. Neither does the Professor. He says: I am a scholar, a man of letters, and have always been a stranger to practical life. It wouldn’t do for a scholar and man of letters to be digging around in the dirt out in the garden. In fact, he hates rural living: To go on living in the country is impossible for me. We are not made for country life. Yet, to live in town on the income we receive from this estate is also impossible. The Professor and his young wife have only come out to the country estate because it’s so expensive living in the city. They’re not used to rural life and they don’t like it.

They’re also not hesitant to say so. This makes everybody else unhappy too. Most of these characters have lived out their whole lives in the country and it didn’t seem to bother them until the Professor and his wife arrived. Telyegin, for example, claims that The weather is delightful, the birds are singing, and we live in peace and harmony. What more do we need? But Telyegin is just a country bumpkin and doesn’t know any better. The rest of them soon become infected by the complaints of the city folk. Dr. Astrov tells Elena bluntly that Wherever you set foot, you and your husband (Elena and the professor), you bring ruin. Uncle Vanya feels like he’s been ruined by the professor and his wife: My life is over! I was talented, intelligent, self-confident…If I had had a normal life, I might have been a Schopenhauer, a Dostoyevsky… This statement shows Vanya’s lack of understanding what life is all about. He himself HAS had a normal life. Schopenhauer and Dostoyevsky were the ones who were unusual. Normal people get up in the morning and go to work. Then they come home in the evening and have supper. Then they go to bed. Nothing much exciting happens. This is normal. The old household nurse-maid is the one least infected by all of this turmoil. When the professor and his wife finally leave, it’s Marina who puts things back in perspective and says: Well, now we’ll go back to our old ways. Breakfast by eight, dinner at one, and in the evening we’ll sit down to supper; everything in its proper order, the way other people live…like Christians. It’s been a long time since this old sinner has tasted noodles. Life goes on: The geese will cackle, then they’ll stop. They cackle, and stop…There, there, little orphan. God is merciful…it will pass. Marina is a wise woman.


Blogger Ulysses Discussion Group said...

This summary nails the import of the play but good; and screws down tightly what Chekov often writes about in his plays, and tales too.
I'd just add to Marina's wise last comment is that she represents the answer to the Peggy Lee song, Is this all there is? - Then let's live now, roll out the keg, and start the dance.
Another comment, this country life in Uncle Vanya may be the situation for many modern people if you took away the television and deprived them the chance to participate in book discussion groups. - Worst of all, to deprive them of books. GBStahl

1/26/2010 4:23 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home