Playwright and author Anton Chekhov used expressive dialogue and vivid prose to draw his audience deep inside what on the surface might appear ordinary or mundane. Born in 1860 to a former serf, he had few fond memories of childhood, apart from the kindness of his mother. He graduated from medical school in Moscow in 1884, becoming the primary financial provider for his parents and younger siblings. It was during this time, while still practicing medicine, that he began to publish his work as a journalist and to write comedic sketches. In 1888, he published his first significant work, the autobiographical short story, “Steppe,” about the journey of a young boy through Ukraine. Today, Chekhov is known best for short stories such as “The Lady With The Dog” and for his masterpiece, Uncle Vanya. The realist play, to quote the Encyclopedia Britannica, is “a superb study of aimlessness in a rural manor house.” Seemingly simple, yet irresistibly compelling, it portrays middle class life of 19th century Russia. The ending is a masterful example of how writing need not be complicated or contrived to convey drama. If you haven’t read it–or seen it–you’ve missed one of literature’s great works.
The play takes place on a country estate that once belonged to the deceased sister of Vanya (Ivan Voitski), but is now the property of Vanya’s brother-in-law, Alexander Serebryakov. A retired professor, Serebryakov has remarried, to the young Helena, whom Vanya falls hopelessly in love with. Vanya’s mother, Marina, also lives on the estate, along with his niece, Sonia, the professor’s daughter.
The excerpt begins in Act II after the professor, Sonia, and Marina excuse themselves for bed, leaving Vanya alone with Helena.
HELENA. Something is wrong in this house. Your mother hates everything but her pamphlets and the professor; the professor is vexed, he won’t trust me, and fears you; Sonia is angry with her father, and with me, and hasn’t spoken to me for two weeks; I am at the end of my strength, and have come near bursting into tears at least twenty times to-day. Something is wrong in this house.
VOITSKI. Leave speculating alone.
HELENA. You are cultured and intelligent, Ivan, and you surely understand that the world is not destroyed by villains and conflagrations, but by hate and malice and all this spiteful tattling. It is your duty to make peace, and not to growl at
VOITSKI. Help me first to make peace with myself. My darling!
[Seizes her hand.]
HELENA. Let go! [She drags her hand away] Go away!
VOITSKI. 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.
HELENA. I am as it were benumbed when you speak to me of your love, and I don’t know how to answer you. Forgive me, I have nothing to say to you. [She tries to go out] Good-night!
VOITSKI. [Barring the way] If you only knew how I am tortured by the thought that beside me in this house is another life that is being lost forever–it is yours! What are you waiting for? What accursed philosophy stands in your way? Oh, understand, understand—
HELENA. [Looking at him intently] Ivan, you are drunk!
VOITSKI. Perhaps. Perhaps.
HELENA. Where is the doctor?
VOITSKI. In there, spending the night with me. Perhaps I am drunk, perhaps I am; nothing is impossible.
HELENA. Have you just been drinking together? Why do you do that?
VOITSKI. Because in that way I get a taste of life. Let me do it, Helena!
HELENA. You never used to drink, and you never used to talk so much. Go to bed, I am tired of you.
VOITSKI. [Falling on his knees before her] My sweetheart, my beautiful one—
HELENA. [Angrily] Leave me alone! Really, this has become too disagreeable.
HELENA goes out. A pause.
VOITSKI [Alone] She is gone! I met her first ten years ago, at her sister’s house, when she was seventeen and I was thirty-seven. Why did I not fall in love with her then and propose to her? It would have been so easy! And now she would have been my wife. Yes, we would both have been waked to-night by the thunderstorm, and she would have been frightened, but I would have held her in my arms and whispered: “Don’t be afraid! I am here.” Oh, enchanting dream, so sweet that I laugh to think of it. [He laughs] But my God! My head reels! Why am I so old? Why won’t she understand me? I hate all that rhetoric of hers, that morality of indolence, that absurd talk about the destruction of the world— [A pause] Oh, how I have been deceived! For years I have worshipped that miserable gout-ridden professor. Sonia and I have squeezed this estate dry for his sake. We have bartered our butter and curds and peas like misers, and have never kept a morsel for ourselves, so that we could scrape enough pennies together to send to him. I was proud of him and of his learning; I received all his words and writings as inspired, and now? Now he has retired, and what is the total of his life? A blank! He is absolutely unknown, and his fame has burst like a soap-bubble. I have been deceived; I see that now, basely deceived.
Read the full text of the play, Uncle Vanya, here.