Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, August 03, 2013

CHEKHOV: Uncle Vanya (Act III)

All Great Books have to start somewhere. In the selection from Genesis we start “In the beginning” and find God himself hard at work, creating the heavens and the earth. In “Uncle Vanya” we find an interesting exchange between Helena and Sonia regarding work. Helena confesses to Sonia: “I wonder why you’re not bored, buzzing away all day; don’t you get tired of it? I’m dying of boredom. I don’t know what to do.” Sonia is used to hard work and tells Helena: “There’s plenty to do if you want to… You could help run this place, teach the children, care for the sick; isn't that enough?” But that’s not the kind of work Helena wants to do: “I don't know anything about such things, and besides, they don't interest me. It’s only in novels that women go out and teach and heal peasants; how can I suddenly begin to do it?” This is an attitude Sonia can’t understand and she tells Helena so: “How can you live here and not do it?”

When it comes to work there’s a whole gulf of understanding (and skill) separating Sonia and Helena. Helena doesn’t think there’s much to do; Sonia thinks there’s plenty to do. Helena’s bored; Sonia’s busy. Helena only wants to do things that “interest me;” Sonia does things that need doing. Helena doesn’t have many practical skills; Sonia can sell flour, teach, nurse, plant, harvest, clean the house and do many other things to make life more pleasant. So what is the reader supposed to make of all this? What is Chekhov trying to tell us? In another Great Books selection called “Rothschild’s Fiddle” Chekhov also takes up work as a primary theme. What’s the purpose of work anyway? Obviously one purpose is simply to keep us alive. We have to pay the bills. In “Rothschild’s Fiddle” we find a man called Jacob reflecting on his life. His wife has just passed away and what does Jacob start thinking about? He thinks about how he wasted the last forty or fifty years of his life. Jacob was a coffin maker and he made good coffins too. But he just barely got by. Instead of making coffins he should have spent his time catching fish and selling them, playing the fiddle for a fee at special events, running a ferry, raising and selling geese… why, he could have made a lot of money if he had only worked the right jobs.

So what is Chekhov trying to tell us? Maybe the same thing in “Uncle Vanya” that he told us in “Rothschild’s Fiddle.” Maybe there IS a connection between work and happiness. One theory is “do what you love and the money will follow” (Helena). Another theory is to do whatever needs doing (Sonia). A third theory is to take the best-paying job regardless of how fulfilling the job is personally (Jacob). But Chekhov doesn’t seem to take any of these paths. Maybe he’s trying to tell us that there’s NOT necessarily a connection between work and happiness. Maybe happiness is found somewhere else altogether. Helena didn’t work and she wasn’t happy. Sonia worked hard but she still wasn’t happy. Jacob worked but it was in the wrong business and he wasn’t happy either. Come to think of it, none of the characters in Chekhov’s stories are happy. It doesn’t much matter what kind of work they do. The real problem goes much deeper than that. All these characters seem restless, unfulfilled, incomplete, and somewhat empty. They’re all looking for something they don’t have. This theme is a relatively modern phenomenon. It never comes up in Genesis or Homer’s “Iliad.” It’s true that Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath” is looking for something but she knows exactly what she wants; a husband. It’s not until Hamlet that readers begin to wonder whether it’s better “to be, or not to be.” For Adam and Eve “to be” is the correct answer. “To be” a hero is Achilles’ goal and the Wife of Bath wants “to be” a wife. There’s a definite pattern here; a connection between living and being and working. Dead or inanimate things don’t work. Only living beings work. Helena could watch God Himself at work: “Let there be light!” and ask Him: “don’t you ever get bored with all this creation stuff?”


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