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Friday, August 09, 2013

CHEKHOV: Uncle Vanya (Act IV)

As this play comes to a close the reader is left to ponder what it really takes to live a happy life. An elderly art professor and his lovely young wife visit a quiet country estate for a few days. Everybody gets bored. Then for the first three acts all hell breaks loose.

In Act IV the professor and his wife decide to move back to the city and the life they much prefer. What has just happened here? What does it all mean? One of the few well-adjusted characters in the whole play probably sums it up best. Marina simply says, “I wish I'd never laid eyes on them.” Once the professor and Helena leave, all the other lives can get back to normal. Marina says,
 “Now we shall have things as they were again: breakfast at eight, dinner at one, in the evening we’ll sit down to supper; everything in order as decent folks do, as Christians like to have it.”
 For Marina the orderly life is the good life. It may be boring to scholarly professors and their pretty wives. But it’s a decent life. It’s the kind of decent, simple living that country folk appreciate; especially when it’s contrasted against the kind of life the professor and Helena live. Of course the simple country life isn’t for everyone. That’s why the professor and Helena want to pack up and get out so quickly. Uncle Vanya was fine living there until Helena got him stirred up. Once he saw her, he began to see his own life as boring, unfulfilling and futile. He was no longer satisfied just running the estate:
 “Oh, my God! I am forty-seven years old. I may live to sixty; I still have thirteen years before me; an eternity! How shall I be able to endure life for thirteen years? What shall I do? How can I fill them?”
It’s funny that he never before thought of life as just filling up time until he died. But he got a taste of the dissatisfaction the professor and Helena brought with them out to the country. Then he became infected with the same vague listlessness and unhappiness they felt. Soon Uncle Vanya wanted a new life. He wanted to really live, not just drone on keeping up an old worn-out farm. So he tells Astrov about his new hopes and dreams:
 “Don't you see, if only I could live the rest of my life in some new way! If I could only wake some still, bright morning and feel that life had begun again; that the past was forgotten and had vanished like smoke.”
Astrov quickly dashes these hopes and dreams: “What nonsense! What sort of a new life can you and I look forward to? We have no hope.”

This is bleak. But Astrov hasn’t given up hope for all mankind: “It may be that posterity, which will despise us for our blind and stupid lives, will find some road to happiness…”

Sonia has another view of life. Her conclusion is, “What can we do? We must live our lives.”

This is a grim philosophy and gets worse:

 “We shall live through the long procession of days before us, and through the long evenings; we shall patiently bear the trials that fate imposes on us; we shall work for others without rest, both now and when we are old; and when our last hour comes we shall meet it humbly, and there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered and wept, that our life was bitter, and God will have pity on us.”

This is bleaker than Astrov. Americans might ask if we ever found that road to happiness that Astrov was speaking of? Or do we just trudge on like those unhappy Russians living out their dull lives in the country? We all have different philosophies of life and may see ourselves in these characters. The professor wants to sell the farm and seize the day. Dr. Astrov resigns himself to melancholy and plants trees so some future generation may have a happier life. Uncle Vanya wants to start a new life with Helena; but those are worthless daydreams. Sonia just wants to grit her teeth and get through life as quickly as she can. Only Marina seems relatively content with her dull life. For Chekhov the road to a happy life is a narrow one; with plenty of pot holes along the way.


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