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Chekhov: The Realist Starring in Uncle Vanya

Happy holidays, all! This is a selection of quotes from Uncle Vanya, a famous play by the great Anton Chekhov, that stand out to me. I find these to be especially revealing of Chekhov’s view on life, death, aging, and the human condition. At his core, Chekhov was an existentialist, and the ultimate realist. Maxim Gorky recognized this too, writing to Chekhov in 1900:

“Do you know what you are doing? You are killing realism. You will soon have killed it off completely, and it will stay that way for some time to come. This form has outlived its time, and that’s a fact! No one can go further along this path than you have done, no one can write as simply about such simple things as you can…”

Here, ironically, being branded as “killing realism” is perhaps the greatest compliment! See this paper for the quote’s source and for more on this idea. This realism is crystal clear in Chekhov’s writing, and so are his existentialist tendencies and his admiration for Nature. Chekhov was also a Naturalist—he believed that Nature always rules supreme over all aspects of society and civilization, and that life, aging, and death are just effects of its influence. Perhaps that is even what formed the basis for his greater, realist views. So, make what you will of that! Oh, and a last note: be on the lookout for Chekhov’s ~interesting~ views on alcohol and the drink (throughout Uncle Vanya, and also in some of the quotes).

I’ve purposefully presented these as just plain quotes here, but I’m currently working on a YouTube video in which I hope to explore these aforementioned ideas (and more!) in greater depth and offer more of my own thoughts and analysis. In the video, I’ll also touch on both the film Vanya on 42nd Street and differences in interpretation of Sonia’s last monologue, both in performances and in literary criticism. 

I’ll link the YouTube video here soon—enjoy this teaser in the meantime! And again, happy holidays! 

Тranslation: Act. 1, Chekhov, Uncle Vanya. Elena Andreevna (to Astroff). You are still a young man, you look… well thirty-six or -seven years old… and it must not be quite so interesting as you say, with always the trees and the trees and the trees. I think it’s monotonous.

Please note that all quotes are of Stark Young’s translation of Uncle Vanya, which appears in my edition of Chekhov’s collection of plays: Chekhov, Anton. Plays. Translated by Stark Young, New Dehli, Rupa Publications, 1999.

. . .

“And life itself is boring, stupid, dirty… it strangles you, this life.” (74)

“… a man for exactly twenty-five years reads and writes about art, and understands exactly nothing about art… twenty-five years reads and writes about what intelligent people already know and stupid people are not interested in…” (78)

ELENA: And fine weather today… Not hot… (A pause.)

VOINITSKY (Uncle Vanya): It’s fine weather to hang yourself… (82)

“He says that forests adorn the earth, that they teach a man to understand the beautiful and inspire him to lofty moods.” (83)

“The whole thing very likely is only foolishness after all.” (85)

“This damned, disgusting old age, the devil take it!” (88)

VOINITSKY: A storm is gathering outside. (Lightning) (90)

“Old ones like young ones want somebody to feel sorry for them, but nobody feels sorry for the old.” (91)

VOINITSKY: The rain will be over now and everything in nature will be fresh and breathing. Only I will not be refreshed by the storm. Day and night like a fiend at my throat is the thought that my life is hopelessly lost. No past, it was stupidly spend on trifles, and the present with all its absurdity is frightful. Here they are: my life and my love: where shall I put them, what shall I do with them? This feeling of mine is dying in vain, like a ray of sunlight that has strayed into a pit, and I myself am dying. (92)

ELENA: And today you were drinking? Why is that?

VOINITSKY: Because it is like living. Somehowlike living.  (93)

“Now we both would have been awakened by the storm; she would have been frightened by the thunder and I would have held her in my arms and whispered: “Don’t be afraid, I am here.” Oh, beautiful thoughts, how wonderful, I am even smiling…” (93)

“When one has no real life, one lives in illusions. After all, that’s better than nothing.” (96)

“An idle life can’t be right.” (98)

“One must have faith in everybody, otherwise life is impossible.” (102)

“And do you know what genius means? Bravery, a free mind, a broad sweep.” (103)

VOINITSKY: As a token of peace and harmony, I’ll bring a bouquet of roses, now; I made it for you this morning… Autumn roses—charming, sad roses… 

(Goes out.)

SONIA: Autumn roses—charming, sad roses.

(Both of them look out of the window.)

ELENA: And September is already with us. How will we live through the winter here… (106)

“It seems to me the truth, whatever it is, is not so frightful as uncertainty after all.” (108)

“We have here a case of degeneration that results from a struggle that’s beyond men’s strength for existence; degeneration caused by sloth, by ignorance, by the complete absence of any conscience… Nearly everything is already destroyed and in its place there is nothing created.” (110-111)

ASTROFF (With false nonchalance): Today, much esteemed Ivan Petrovich, the weather is not bad. In the morning it was cloudy, as if it would rain, and now the sun’s shining. Honestly speaking, autumn turned out beautiful… And the winter crop not bad. (Folds the chart into a cylinder.) Except for one thing: the days are getting short… (Goes out.) (114)

“The fact is manet omnes una nox, that is: we are all mortal…” (116)

VOINITSKY: Why not—I am insane, irresponsible, I have the right to say silly things.

ASTROFF: That’s an old story. You are not insane, you are simply odd. A little clown. There was a time when I too regarded every person who was odd as sick, abnormal, and now I am of the opinion that the normal state of man is to be odd. You are entirely normal. (125-126)

VOINITSKY: Give me something! Oh, my God… I am forty-seven years old; if—suppose I’ll live till sixty—if so I still have thirteen years left. That long! How shall I live through these thirteen years? What will I do, what will I fill them with? Oh, do you understand… (Convulsively pressing ASTROFF’s hand) Do you understand, if I could only live through what is left of life somehow differently. To wake up on a clear, quiet morning and to feel that you have begun to live anew, that all the past is forgotten, faded away, like smoke. (Crying) To begin a new life… teach me how to begin… from what to begin… 

ASTROFF (Annoyed, sharply): Eh, you! What new life is there? Our situation, yours and mine, is hopeless. (126)

SONIA: What can we do, we must live! (A pause) We shall live, Uncle Vanya. We’ll live through a long, long line of days, endless evenings; we’ll bear patiently the trials fate sends us; we’ll work for others now and in our old age without ever knowing any rest, and when our hour comes, we’ll die humbly and there beside the coffin we’ll say that we suffered, that we cried, that we felt bitter, and God will take pity on us, and you and I, Uncle, darling Uncle, shall see life bright, beautiful, fine, we shall be happy and will look back tenderly with a smile on these misfortunes we have now—and we shall rest. I have faith. I believe warmly, passionately… (Kneeling before him and putting her head on his hands; in a tired voice) We shall rest!

(TELEGIN plays the guitar quietly.)

SONIA: We shall rest! We shall hear the angels, we shall see the whole sky all diamonds, we shall see how all earthly evil, all our sufferings, are drowned in the mercy that will fill the whole world. And our life will grow peaceful, tender, sweet as a caress. I believe, I do believe… (Wipes away his tears with a handkerchief) Poor, dear Uncle Vanya, you are crying… (Through her tears) In your life you haven’t known what joy was; but wait, Uncle Vanya, wait… We shall rest… (Embraces him) We shall rest! (The night watchman taps. TELEGIN is strumming quietly; MARIA VASILIEVNA is writing on the margins of a pamphlet; MARINA is knitting on a stocking.)

SONIA: We shall rest!

The curtain falls slowly. (134-135)