Destruction in Uncle Vanya: Interpreting Yelena
Destruction. It’s a powerful word, encapsulating a Pandora’s box of emotions. It implies damage beyond a state of repair, or even, at times, beyond a state of existence. Destruction plays an important role in Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. What is destroyed and who is the destroyer is dependent on viewpoint. One particular moment at the end of Act 1 captures the complexity and multifariousness of this concept. Following Astrov’s denouncement of human environmental destruction and Vanya’s subsequent condemnation of Yelena’s lifestyle, Yelena states, “It’s like Astrov was saying just now: you destroy the forests without thinking, and pretty soon there won’t be a tree left on the planet. You destroy human beings the same way, and pretty soon trust, and honesty, and the possibility of self-sacrifice will vanish from the planet as well” (Chekov, 217-218). Though she is clearly reacting to Astrov and Vanya, her intentions here are vague, something that gets at the mystery of her character. Indeed, in his notes, director Leonid Heifetz writes, “[Yelena] is a mysterious woman, and much depends on the actress” (Heifetz, 99). With this in mind, I use this essay to explore potential ways an actress may interpret this line — which I shall refer to as The Moment — and the implications this has for the larger character and the play at large.
One possible interpretation of the Moment is that Yelena is not thinking about destruction at all. Instead, she cannot get Astrov off her mind. Later in the play, it becomes clear that Yelena and Astrov are passionately attracted to one another. This attraction stems from their interactions in Act 1. After Astrov makes his speech and exits, his words and essence clearly linger with Yelena. Preceding The Moment, Vanya may be talking to Yelena about her husband, the professor Alexander, but her mind quickly steers away from discussion this topic: “Oh, poor thing, stuck with an old man like that! But all this sympathy for me—oh, I know what’s behind it. It’s like Astrov was saying just now” (Chekhov, 217). Her redirection of the conversation away from her husband and towards Astrov is an indication of her attraction to the latter. On the previous page, she presses for his age—“You’re still young, aren’t you?”—hinting at her interest in him (Chekhov, 216). Later, in Act 2, it is evident that the attraction was strong enough to endure past The Moment when she says, “That man has genius” (Chekhov, 230). When considered in conjunction with Alexander’s old age, Astrov’s relative youth, “genius,” and evident passion (his environmentalism), it becomes clear why he might magnetize her.
However, this interpretation falls somewhat flat. While it is true Yelena’s attraction to Astrov is undeniable, it does not seem very plausible that she would quote Astrov solely because he is on her mind. Destruction is too powerful a concept; The Moment must come from a deeper, multifaceted place within her in order to resonate. It is an oversimplification to limit Yelena’s character to mere attraction. In order to fully understand Yelena in The Moment, we must, analyze what Astrov’s quote means to her; in other words, we must reach an understanding of destruction’s significance in her life.
In Amy E. Meyer’s director’s notes from her 2007 production of Uncle Vanya at Connecticut College, she describes Yelena as “attracted to Astrov” but lacking “the courage to act on her feelings or the heart to betray her marriage vows” (Meyer, 49). Looking at The Moment through this lens, we can see what destruction may mean for Yelena. Up to this point, Yelena has grown comfortable in life. Now, however, she begins to feel consumed by two forces—one pulling her towards Astrov, and the other towards her husband. She views this as the destruction of the unsatisfying, but easy life she has created for herself. This battle over her heart presents a moral dilemma: Should she remain faithful? This inner debate—the push and pull of lust and loyalty—puts Yelena in a state of inner turmoil. She admits in Act 2, “It’s not crime and criminals that are destroying the world; it’s petty little emotions” (Chekhov, 222). If we look at “the world” as her composure and peace in life, we understand that Yelena feels torn apart by the emotions presented in the dilemma. Looking once again at The Moment, we can view “trust, and honesty, and the possibility of self-sacrifice” as her perception of important qualities in a relationship. Her attraction to Astrov is emblematic of breaking the trust she and Alexander should have for each other. Her attraction is a “petty little emotion” that is wreaking destruction in her marriage.
The word “should” is important in the second to last sentence. There should be trust in a good marriage. If Yelena has reached a point where she is interested in other men, her relationship with the professor must not be very strong. They must be lacking the aforementioned key qualities of a relationship, which would explain why she is enticed by Astrov. Assuming she keeps her detachment and boredom away from Alexander (both of which she admits to feeling when she says, “Detached? Oh yes. And bored,” 217), she is not fully open with him—there is a dearth of “trust and honesty.” With regards to “self-sacrifice”, choosing to give in to her feelings for Astrov, which she does later in the play when they kiss, is indicative not of self-sacrifice, but rather of self-gratification and indulgence. The destruction might therefore be interpreted as ironic. She is lamenting the loss of these important marital qualities, yet they weren’t present in her marriage to begin with. In other words, her marriage was destroyed from the moment she realized she made a mistake in marrying Alexander. This was a moment that came well before Astrov’s introduction into her life, as indicated in Act 2: “I was dazzled by him; he was so famous and so intelligent. It wasn’t real love, it was all a fantasy, but at the time I thought it was real” (229).
This interpretation can be taken a step further. In The Moment, she says, “You destroy the forests without thinking, and pretty soon there won’t be a tree left on the planet.” This can be treated as an analogous situation to her marriage. She married Alexander “without thinking” or having “real” love, and now she must face the consequences. For her, the consequences extend beyond simply having a marriage not grounded in honesty. She is left “profoundly unhappy” (Heifetz, 99). While discussing her marriage with Sonya, she near the end of Act 2 exemplifies how Yelena’s marriage has destroyed her happiness. In a rare moment of bliss, Yelena says, “I feel like playing the piano now, I really do” (Chekhov, 231). Immediately, however, she remembers “music drives him [Alexander] crazy” (Chekhov, 231). This is a clear metaphor on Chekhov’s part: Alexander literally denies “music”—a classic trope of joy—from being present in Yelena’s life. Assessing this alongside The Moment, Yelena’s perception of “the forest” begins to emerge from the haze. It represents her happiness. After marrying the professor and staying with him for so long, not an ounce of pleasure—not a tree—is left over. She has been emotionally destroyed.
Another consequence stemming from this is that Yelena has destroyed her future by marrying Alexander. If her life pre-marriage were a wood of opportunities, Yelena has chopped down all of her hopeful prospects. This interpretation is consistent with Yelena’s exit from the play. She rejects Astrov, choosing to stay with the professor. In other words, she turns down the one opportunity she has left to get out of her miserable marriage—she fells her last tree of hope. Thus, The Moment is almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy: she recognizes she is in a hopeless situation, and she does nothing to change it.
The Moment can also be looked at as a reaction to Vanya. After all, it does come right after Vanya says, “You don’t care about anything, do you? You just drift through life” (Chekhov, 217). “You destroy the forests without thinking” is a response aimed at Vanya. From his perspective, he is doing something good: he wants her to realize her marriage has put her in a bad place. Yelena, however, doesn’t see it as help, and she rejects him. She can see his love for her and jealousy of Alexander, even if he doesn’t explicitly admit to it until a few lines after The Moment. She is repulsed by Vanya, calling him “aggravating” and, later, “disgusting” (Chekhov, 218, 223). Vanya’s attraction to her is yet another complication in the straightforward life to which she has become accustomed. It is another destructive force, just like her desires to remain loyal to her vows and to give in to her lust for Astrov.
It is hard to pinpoint a greater meaning in Uncle Vanya. It is a naturalistic play, and thus seeks to not pass judgment, but rather present life. Barbara Mackay’s review of the Sydney Theater Company’s production assesses the play in this way: “Uncle Vanya is neither about pessimism nor optimism, it doesn’t choose between good and bad characters, it considers people and their search for work and love in a non-judgmental manner, as Chekhov intended.” While the play may not convey a specific message, it does present themes and ideas that provoke and inspire thought in the audience. The choices a production makes allow different themes to resonate more poignantly. For instance, depending on how The Moment is played, destruction comes across differently.
One way Uncle Vanya may be interpreted is as a play “about people trying to find value in their work and purpose in their lives” (Meyer, 49). For such an interpretation, Yelena would have to be on a quest for happiness. Her attraction to Astrov is significant in The Moment because it is a possible escape route from the monotony of her life. In a production interpreted this way, a director might choose to make Yelena’s perception of “destruction” the various aspects that complicate her easy life—her reciprocated attraction to Astrov, her loyalty to her husband, Vanya’s love for her. This is because it is through these complications that Yelena tries to evaluate what she wants in life. When Yelena ultimately decides to leave with the professor, it is not because she hasn’t been offered opportunities to get away: she makes a conscious choice to stay with her husband. She may lust for Astrov, but she realizes that the passion is momentary, and that she must look elsewhere for purpose in her life.
Similarly, Uncle Vanya can be interpreted as a play about failure and wasted lives. For this interpretation to work, Yelena must come off as hopeless, unhappy, and lost in her marriage. In The Moment, we must get a sense that Yelena has failed to create a life for herself outside of her poor relationship with the professor. In a production emphasizing these themes, destruction should reflect the crushing effect of Yelena’s marriage on her life prospects. Her choice to leave Astrov and go off with the professor is indicative of her giving up on life.
There will never be one set way to interpret Yelena. The choices each production makes alter who Yelena is and how she perceives existence and destruction. Had Chekhov not left parts of Yelena up to interpretation, the play would lose its naturalism. An actress would have to fit a mold, rather than create a human being. Instead, Chekhov requires an actress to look into the subtext behind this “mysterious woman” in order to find a character who is as real as possible, who understands how she feels in The Moment and every moment preceding and following it.
Chekhov, Anton. The Plays of Anton Chekhov. New York: Harper Collins, 1997.
Heifetz, Leonid. “Notes from a director: Uncle Vanya.” Cambridge University. http://cco.cambridge.org/uid=2203/pdf_handler?search_scope=collection&c ollection_id=complete&collection_id=literature&collection_id=philosophy- andreligion&id=ccol0521581176_CCOL0521581176A011&pdf_hh=1&authst atuscode=202
Mackay, Barbara. “’Without moral verdicts or samovars.” The Washington Examiner. http://washingtonexaminer.com/uncle-vanya-without-moral-verdcits-or- samovars/article/117082#.UIrsSLTHNUS.
Meyer, Amy E., “A Director’s Process: The Conception, Preparation and Production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya” (2007). Theater Honors Papers. Paper 1. http://digitalcommons.conncoll.edu/theathp/1
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya: A Study of Indifference and Miscommunication
In his play Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov uses many writing techniques to convey a sense of breakdown in communication. While his play has elements of humor in it, making it seem almost farcical at times, Chekhov was truly concerned about the lack of social interconnectedness in Russia during the 19th century. He conveys this frustration in his play through the conversations between his characters, such as when they are highly sarcastic, when they are fragmented, and when they are disconnected to the point where it is clear that each character is solely in his or her own head. He also shows the versatility of this breakdown by conveying it in different types of relationships, such as between parent and child, husband and wife, and two lovers.
While sarcasm can be used jokingly between two close people to convey their comfort and friendship with each other, it can often be used in an ambivalent way and cause miscommunication. The characters in Chekhov’s play seem to have trouble communicating on a level that is straightforward and honest, without any sarcastic humor. This is particularly obvious in the relationship between Mme. Voitskaya and her son, Ivan. While the mother tries to convey issues to her son that she feels he should work on, she does so in a sarcastic manner that comes off as nonchalant. For example, she says to Ivan: “It seems you never want to listen to what I have to say. Pardon me, Jean, but you have changed so in the last year that I hardly know you. You used to be a man of settled convictions and had an illuminating personality— “. Ivan interrupts her and exclaims “Oh, yes. I had an illuminating personality, which illuminated no one” (193). Ivan and his mother are discussing how Ivan’s personality is burning out as a flame that does not get oxygen burns out. While they are bringing the topic up, they are in no way solving the issue because they are not fully communicating their thoughts to each other. They also turn an important matter into a light chat. In addition to this, Ivan’s mother complains that Ivan never listens, and Ivan confirms this by interrupting her. It is clear that the characters want to communicate, but they tragically fail to do so.
Chekhov also uses fragmented conversation to show a breakdown in communication. While the characters are having conversations, they tend to speak in choppy statements and not answer each other’s questions. The character Serebrakov and his wife Helena illustrate this perfectly. They are in a marriage that seems, to most people, out of place because it is difficult to believe Helena can love a man so much older than her. This age gap is causing the couple frustration, and this frustration becomes obvious in their conversations. While Serebrakov is complaining about his illness, Helena is clearly tired of hearing about it. Serebrakov says to her: “I dreamed just now that my left leg belonged to someone else, and it hurt so that I woke up. I don’t believe this is gout, it is more like rheumatism. What time is it?” Helena unemphatically responds, “Half past twelve” (278). She completely ignored his worries about his illness, most likely because she hears it all too often.
Lastly, Chekhov creates scenarios in which multiple people are interacting, but each person seems to be doing their own thing. When Ivan, who loves Helena, walks in to see Astrov kissing her, every character breaks out into their own reaction: Helena yells “Let me go!” and goes to the window, embarrassed. Voitski throws down the flowers he was bringing to her and starts saying, to himself, “Nothing-yes, yes, nothing.” Astrov completely derails and exclaims, “The weather is fine today, my dear Ivan; the morning was overcast and looked like rain, but now the sun is shining again. Honestly, we have had a very fine autumn…” (625). This scenario is filled with a lot of miscommunication and misunderstanding. Helena hardly wanted to kiss Astrov, and Ivan felt wrongly betrayed. Astrov made a joke out of all of it to taunt Ivan. Not a single character expressed to the other two what was actually going on. Obviously all the characters would have benefited from better communication in each of these scenarios. But they do not do so because each of them is so stuck in their own problems during this time of social reform in Russia. The relationships between the characters living in this cabin are a microcosm of the Russian people’s growing disagreements and their inability to solve them.
Chekhov, Anton. Uncle Vanya. Dover Thrift ed. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2013. Kindle Edition. This Dover edition, first published in 1998, is an unabridged republication of a standard edition.