play twenty four: uncle vanya

The terrible Yeliena.
The vampiric Yeliena.

Author: Anton Chekhov

Published: 1899

Translator: Elisaveta Fen

Synopsis: The gout-ridden professor Serebriakov has retired to his country estate with his much younger wife Yeliena Andryeevna. His daughter from his first marriage, Sonia, and her uncle, Vanya, have looked after his affairs but gradually realise that his much-lauded career, which they have tirelessly supported, has been a sham. The old sophist and the beautiful, bored, listless Yeliena gradually infect the family with their aimless ways, before a rupture in the emotional equilibrium of the group forces them to depart.

What moved me: What might be most moving about this work is Chekhov’s prescience about our collective responsibility for the environment. Astrov (another doctor!) is committed to sustainable living, not only in his treatment of patients but also in his role as a landowner.

ASTROV: […] Anyone who can burn up all that beauty in a stove, who can destroy something that we cannot create, must be a barbarian incapable of reason. Man is endowed with reason and creative power so that he can increase what has been given him, but up to the present he’s been destroying and not creating. There are fewer and fewer forests, the rivers are drying up, the wild creatures are almost exterminated, the climate is being ruined, and the land is getting poorer and more hideous every day. [To VOINITSKY.] I can see your ironic expression, and I believe that what I say doesn’t seem at all serious to you, and…and maybe it is just crankiness….All the same when I go walking by the woods that belong to the peasants, the woods I saved from being cut down, or when I hear the rustling of the young trees I planted with my own hands, I’m conscious of the fact that the climate is to some extent in my power too, and that if mankind is happy in a thousand years’ time, I’ll be responsible for it even though only to a very minute extent. […]

Yeliena sucks this conviction from him in her general malaise – that black hole of purposelessness that plagues so many of Chekhov’s humans. His universe is pockmarked with these black holes and yet I would not characterise it as pessimistic. It’s perhaps both more hopeful and more resigned – we must each find our purpose and hold onto it as best we can, for the slightest wind will shake it from our hands.


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