"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, February 17, 2014

Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’–Time, Inaction, And Regret

Anton Chekhov’s plays have often been criticized as frustrating if not slow and difficult. Nothing happens in them, or so it seems.  Characters go about their lives discussing issues, telling others how bored they are, how impossibly dull life is in the provinces, how ignorant and backward everyone is; and yet they never do anything about it.

                                                                                              Uncle Vanya

Of course, that is the whole point.  Chekhov observed that few people have the courage or ability to act either in their own interests or for the sake of anyone else.  They are trapped in routine and in the mores and habits of the times.  They are isolated by class, inhibited by tradition and upbringing; and unable to adapt to change.  Unfortunately for the characters in Chekhov’s plays, change is indeed coming.  The Russian Revolution is only a few years away, and the Tsar has already radically altered the socio-cultural and economic landscape.  The serfs have been freed and are crowding the cities to provide labor for new industry, the wealthy have been displaced from their once-secure, traditional, aristocratic neighborhoods; the military has been universalized, no longer aristocratic; and even the peasantry is stirring.

In The Three Sisters, Masha, Olga, and Irina constantly complain about their menial jobs, the cultural vacuum in the provinces, and the lack of the energy, vitality, and excitement they found in Moscow.  However, they only complain, long for the past, and unrealistically see the arrival of the dashing young officers as salvation. They themselves do nothing.

These officers, however, are no better than they, no more equipped for deliberate action.  Tuzenbach and Vershinin debate abstruse philosophical issues – the nature of time and man.  Will history change, they wonder, or in 1000 years will everything, despite outward appearances be the same?  Or will the future be better than the present, the result of work, investment, and belief?

In The Cherry Orchard, Mrs. Ranevksy is threatened with the loss of her estate, but feels powerless to save it.  She refuses the cut down the cherry orchard, subdivide it, build and rent summer dachas, pay the mortgage on the estate with the revenues, and save it.  She cannot change with the times, and is inflexible as the three sisters, locked by social, cultural, and economic conditioning into inaction, unrealistic hope, and illusion.

In Uncle Vanya Chekhov presents the same themes – the corrosive nature of idleness, the idealistic belief in work as a solution, and the curse of inactivity; but he sets two characters of action - Professor Serebryakov  and Doctor Astrov – against all the rest. By Astrov  remains a man of principle and action to the end; and while Serebryakov acts in dismissive self-interest, he is able to break out of the lassitude into which all his family have fallen.

Serebryakov has been fortunate and privileged – a man of letters of some renown, a Casanova with a second young, beautiful wife, and whose first wife’s family supports him because of his genius and promise. He becomes disillusioned, frustrated, and unhappy.

SEREBRYAKOV. I have spent my life working in the interests of learning. I am used to my library and the lecture hall and to the esteem and admiration of my colleagues. Now I suddenly find myself plunged in this wilderness, condemned to see the same stupid people from morning till night and listen to their futile conversation. I want to live; I long for success and fame and the stir of the world, and here I am in exile! Oh, it is dreadful to spend every moment grieving for the lost past, to see the success of others and sit here with nothing to do but to fear death. I cannot stand it! It is more than I can bear. And you will not even forgive me for being old!

In Act IV he decides that life must change.  He is tired of his life of academic and social isolation and living in a house with so many empty rooms and unhappy people; and he decides to sell the estate and move to the city.  He ignores his daughter Sonia’s legal rights to the house, and dismisses the work she and her brother Vanya have invested to help him in his career.  For Chekhov, Serebryakov is a new character, one more cut in the willful mold of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Hilde Wangel, or Rebekka West – an unethical character, but nothing like these predatory, destructive women.

Astrov is the moral center of the play.  He is a committed, hard-working doctor and environmentalist 100 years ahead of his time. He understands that the woods and forests of Russia are to be held in trust for subsequent generations.  He, like Vershinin in Three Sisters is a believer in a better future if present generations work to achieve it.

He chastises Vanya and Helen for their whining idleness and for falling into needless despair.  He is their preceptor, the messenger of coming change, and the only voice of reason and moderation; but few pay attention.  Helen is too absorbed in her own misery, trapped in a loveless marriage with Serebryakov, a much older man.  Vanya increasingly complains about the Professor and how he – Vanya – deceived himself for years into believing that Serebryakov was a great man.  Sonia knows she is homely and unlikely to find a mate, and has put all her energies into serving her father and helping her uncle.

Vanya is the weakest, least disciplined, and least sympathetic character in the play.  He is the Chekovian Man of inaction and regret. Whereas one can have great sympathy for characters in Chekhov’s other plays, such as Mrs. Ranevsky in The Cherry Orchard, or the three sisters, Vanya is emotionally immature and morally corrupt.  He says that he has wasted his life by serving Serebryakov; but for decades worked tirelessly for what he thought was a great man.  He irrationally turns his frustration and anger towards the Professor for failing him rather than realizing and accepting his own failure to see the truth. At the end of Act III he tries to shoot Serebryakov, misses – certainly deliberately – and wonders in the first scene of Act IV:

Strange! I attempted murder, and am not going to be arrested or brought to trial. That means they think me mad. [With a bitter laugh] Me! I am mad, and those who hide their worthlessness, their dullness, their crying heartlessness behind a professor's mask, are sane! Those who marry old men and then deceive them under the noses of all, are sane! I saw you kiss her; I saw you in each other's arms!

He is right.  No one takes him seriously, nor has the least sympathy for him.  All understand that Sonia was under her father’s strict and dominant thumb; Helen married an older man for wealth and position; but only Vanya had delusions and a very imperfect understanding of the world.

If Serebryakov is the willful, Nietzschean man of action, then Astrov is Chekov’s proto-Communist model. He is a man of intelligence, insight, ideas, moral principle, and action. He is The New Russia. He understands how idleness corrupts even him and berates Helen as she is about to leave the estate with her husband:

You and he have infected us with your idleness. I have been swept off my feet; I have not put my hand to a thing for weeks, during which sickness has been running its course unchecked among the people, and the peasants have been pasturing their cattle in my woods and young plantations. Go where you will, you and your husband will always carry destruction in your train. I am joking of course, and yet I am strangely sure that had you stayed here we should have been overtaken by the most immense desolation. I would have gone to my ruin, and you—you would not have prospered. So go! E finita la comedia!

All his life until he has been infected by the idleness of Helen and Vanya, he has served the people directly as a physician or indirectly as the custodian of the forests of the estate.  While he lived in the Serebryakov household he found himself falling into the same lassitude and indifference, so much so that he admits that even he, with all his principle and resolve, could only survive if everyone left.

As in Shakespearean Comedy, all is resolved at the end; but instead of a wedding, Chekhov gives us departure.  Helen and the Professor leave for the city, Astrov can regain his composure and commitment; Sonia will flounder; and Vanya will certainly fall even further.  Not an entirely happy resolution, but a resolution nonetheless.

In many ways Chekhov’s Thornton Wilder’s Our Town resembles Uncle Vanya.  Both deal with the subject of passing time and regret.  While the residents of Grover’s Corners are simple people – no army officers, no Russian aristocracy, radical intellectuals, or moral philosophers – they are unaware of the passage of time and wasted opportunities until they are dead.  In the last act of the play Simon Stimson says to Emily who has visited the world after her death:

Yes, now you know. Now you know! That's what it was to be
alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance;to go up and down
trampling on the feelings of those ... of those about you. To spend
and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at
the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another. Now you know that's the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness.

Sonia echoes the same sentiment in the last scene of Uncle Vanya when she says to Vanya:

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. Ah, then dear, dear Uncle, we shall see that bright and beautiful life; we shall rejoice and look back upon our sorrow here; a tender smile—and—we shall rest. I have faith, Uncle, fervent, passionate faith.

The tragedy of the characters in Our Town is that they never realize what they are missing or the follies they are committing until they are dead/  The Stage Manager in Act III says:

Now there are some things we all know, but we don't take 'em out
and look at 'em very often. We all know that something is eternal.
And it ain't houses and it ain't names, and it ain't earth, and it ain't
even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something
is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All
the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five
thousand years and yet you'd be surprised how people are always
losing hold of it. There's something way down deep that's eternal
about every human being.


Yet few people have the patience or insight to look.  They are caught up in the routine of daily life.  They are honest, trusting, moral, and righteous people; but they are unable to even glimpse the real nature of their lives – the ‘eternal’ that will give meaning and purpose. Emily says after she has visited the living:

Look! Father Gibbs is bringing some of my flowers to you. He
looks just like George, doesn't he? Oh, Mother Gibbs, I never
realized before how troubled and how . . . how in the dark live
persons are. Look at him. I loved him so. From morning till night,
that's all they are troubled.

Our Town is a moving, lyrical play about nothing – an ordinary town, with ordinary people, going about very ordinary lives with little sense that life will soon be over.  The play is powerful and tragic because of its simplicity and its innocence, and because of its overwhelming sense of loss and futility.  We are not frustrated or angry with Emily or Mr. and Mrs. Gibbs, not even sorry for them that they went so ignorantly happy through their lives.  Just overwhelmingly sad.

Wilder does not romanticize the live of Grover’s Corners, and talks just as dismissively about the great events of history

Over there are some Civil War veterans. Iron flags on their
graves . . . New Hampshire boys who had a notion that the Union
ought to be kept together, though they'd never seen more than
fifty miles of it themselves. All they knew was the name, friends
the United States of America, and they went and died about it

The only tragedy of Grover’s Corners – the only tragedy in life – is the inability to appreciate the ordinary for what it is.  In retrospect, and in the eyes of the dead Emily who returns to earthy, life is beautiful, memorable, and indeed spiritual.  “Why can’t they realize it?”, she wonders.

Chekhov is too much of a realist to entertain such spiritual notions.  He is a materialist in the mold of the next generation’s revolutionaries. Inaction is reprehensible because it is betrayal of future generations. His characters have no spiritual regret as does Wilder’s Emily who sees and understands what she and the rest of the former living have overlooked, disregarded, or wasted.  Vanya complains that he has wasted his life, but is only selfishly concerned.  Astrov is the only character with vision and moral certainty.  To waste life is a secular sin, a crime against future generations, moral thievery.

Serebryakov is very much like Vanya, for both men view their wasting lives through a selfish lens.  However whereas the Professor finally acts, Vanya never does.  Chekhov admires both the principled Astrov and the unprincipled but willful Serebryakov for their action. The Professor is so aware of the destructive nature of waste and so outspoken about his revulsion for it that he tells Vanya and Sonia, “You all have been wasting the best years of your life on me while I benefit”. If Vanya’s own recognition of his failure were not enough, he has to hear it from his newly-detested enemy, the Professor.  Vanya, in another expression of self-pity, says:

Soon the rain will be over, and all nature will sigh and awake refreshed. Only I am not refreshed by the storm. Day and night the thought haunts me like a fiend, that my life is lost for ever. My past does not count, because I frittered it away on trifles, and the present has so terribly miscarried! What shall I do with my life and my love? What is to become of them? This wonderful feeling of mine will be wasted and lost as a ray of sunlight is lost that falls into a dark chasm, and my life will go with it.

“Astrov is the only bright light in a world of dull and grey”, says the depressed and purposeless Helen who understands her fate, but chooses to do nothing about it.  Astrov is heroic because he has been overwhelmed by mediocrity, irresponsible lassitude, and anti-progressive sentiment but has overcome it.  Although less by force of will than by circumstance, Astrov is the last man standing in Chekhov’s drama of inaction.

No comments:

Post a Comment