Uncle Vanya (Anton Checkov)

 
Helena
 
This play doesn’t seem like a comedy to me, or at least like my idea of a comedy, since it is not funny and it doesn’t have a happy ending. There may be some funny elements yet I cannot remember one, because the feelings of hatred, fear, and regret dominate the play. This play also contains the elements of madness and melancholy which are common characteristics of Russian literature, as I understand it. The themes that I noticed are people’s aversion to old age, how youth and beauty go together, the importance of beauty in women, and the modern Russian history. I am not sure if Checkov was present at the time when the Russian monarchy fell and the Bolsheviks took over Russia, but I can see that the struggles presented among the characters here somehow reflect the modern Russian history.

Most “old” people are unhappy because they already lack the things that they have or can do when they were still young. This unhappiness mostly comes from reliving the past and not accepting that all we have now is the present moment. In this play, almost all characters worry about their old age, but the two most worried about it are Alexander Serebrakoff and Uncle Vanya. Uncle Vanya said, “If you knew how I lie awake at night, heartsick and angry, to think how stupidly I have wasted my time when I might have been winning from life everything which my old age now forbids” – while Alexander said, “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!” Both of them regret that they cannot bring back the good old times and they resent their old age for it. It almost seems like the youth have the most opportunities for happiness, success, or other good things in life than the people of other age groups. Somehow I also feel like a failure for just following my heart at this time of my life and delaying when I should climb up the ladder for worldly success. But Marina said something about old people which makes me feel bad for my deceased grandparents: “Old people want to be pitied as much as young ones, but nobody cares about them somehow.” Perhaps regret and wanting to bring back time is just normal, and it’s just that we naturally feel the need to chase back the past when death is nearly approaching. However, everything is just a matter of perspective anyway; some people are even sick of this earth that they envy old people whose lives are already ending.

The next thing related to youth is beauty. In this play, Helena and Sonia are two polar opposites because of the superficial fact that one is pretty and the other is ugly or plain. Beauty is oftentimes the quality that is noticed in women because youth and beauty are the things that make women desirable – and it usually doesn’t matter whether they are rich or not or are skillful or not. For men, the things that make them desirable to women are money and power. Between Helena and Sonia, Helena has the upper hand since all men in the play are in love with her and her beauty. She was already married to the professor and yet she still had two other options for a mate. Sonia, on the other hand, only loved Astroff with all her heart but the man feels no desire for her. For females, it is really advantageous to be born a beauty than a Plain Jane because women themselves are not permitted by the patriarchal society to be on top; and beautiful women have better chances at latching on to richer and more powerful men that can give them the comfortable and happy lives that they want.

Since Helena and Alexander were portrayed to have comfortable lives while Uncle Vanya and other people toil for them, they might represent the Russian monarchy while Uncle Vanya and the others represent the poor peasants and the common people. As time went by, the people in the house realized that Helena and Alexander were only burdens that make other people’s lives miserable while at the same time they are regarded with high esteem. Astroff said this about Helena:

“A human being should be entirely beautiful: the face, the clothes, the mind, the thoughts. Your step-mother is, of course, beautiful to look at, but don’t you see? She does nothing but sleep and eat and walk and bewitch us, and that is all. She has no responsibilities, everything is done for her – am I not right? And an idle life can never be a pure one.”

I am not an expert on Russian history but I know a little about it – and this part is the realization of the common people that the Russian monarchy is not serving them anymore, and their anger at the monarchy acted out by the Bolsheviks was reflected in what Uncle Vanya said to Alexander:

“We used to think of you as almost superhuman, but now the scales have fallen from my eyes and I see you as you are! You write on art without knowing anything about it. Those books of yours which I used to admire are not worth one copper kopeck. You are a hoax!”

It basically means that the last of the Romanovs became nothing but a mere ornament for the Russian empire because Tsar Nicholas II was a bit useless for a king, and Russia was really in turmoil at that time. They went through the transition phase wherein the people wanted to eliminate the social hierarchy that monarchies bring forth. And because the gap between the bourgeoisie and the masses is so huge, these elites that govern nations cannot really address the real problems of the people. It is reflected in what Alexander replied to Uncle Vanya after he had vented out his anger:

“What did I know about such things, Ivan? I am not a practical man and don’t understand them. You might have helped yourself to all you wanted.”

The oppressed people are often blamed for their misfortunes, but we must also remember that the power is not in their hands in but in the hands of the elites and national authorities. Well, sometimes we also have to blame ourselves, but our power is very limited. We live in a world full of contrasts and binary oppositions as our souls wouldn’t understand white unless it experiences black and so on. Like Alexander and Uncle Vanya, we cannot stand some people for some weird reason because they reflect some unacceptable things about ourselves or the universe just wants us to grow. And yet sometimes, things or people that give us headaches just make us realize some things and they do not serve us in the long run, so parting ways is better, just like what happened in this play. Some things that bring about our own destruction come and go in our lives, but we can always redeem ourselves in the end. Old age is not an excuse to be idle and mope about our misfortunes because it is never too late to start all over again. 

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