An Analysis of Symbolism in Uncle Vanya
Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya portrays complicated relationships between several characters with rather distinct personalities. Staged at the nineteenth century, Chekhov’s drama of everyday life stresses conflict amongst his characters through language, set, sound effects, and costumes. Interestingly, many aspects mentioned above rely on powerful symbolism: it is a key factor that not only shapes Chekhov’s characters but also influences the rhythm of the play. To that end, this essay will analyze and interrogate one key use of symbolism in Uncle Vanya: the fourth act.
The introductory directions before the fourth act describe the intriguing furnishing of Voynitsky’s (Uncle Vanya’s) bedroom: “On the wall, a map of Africa, apparently of no use to anyone” (Chekhov, 595). But why is such a map of Africa in a Russian rural estate? Chekhov deliberately includes this surprising detail in the scene to demonstrate how tedious it is for Vanya to manage the estate. The map plays an important role as a symbol for Vanya’s wasted “no use to anyone” (Chekhov, 595) life, and the general futility of all the character’s lives.
In the play, Uncle Vanya has been managing the estate for the professor for over twenty-five years. He gave up his share of inheritance, sacrificed opportunities to pursuing personal wealth and developing a professional career, and dedicated his youth to work in the estate to pay off the mortgage. Moreover, Uncle Vanya admires the professor. For example, the following sentence demonstrates how he regards the professor as a valuable figure with the highest respect: “By day we talked about you and your work. We were proud of you. We uttered your name with reverence” (Chekhov, 592). Failing to establish his own self-worth, Vanya is obsessed with his contribution, dedication, and sacrifice to support the professor’s study. Although he does, at certain points, consider what he has done for real happiness, the cruel fact is that he has wasted his life in vain. The futility of his dedications to the estate is revealed efforts when the professor suggests selling the estate. Unlike Uncle Vanya, the professor is self-conceited, for he never considers what Vanya has done for him. As the professor says: “How was I to know? I am not a practical man and I don’t understand anything about these things” Chekhov, 592), Vanya’s efforts and sacrifice are completely ignored. Spiraling into anger, indignation, and regret, Vanya cannot help himself; he shoots the professor twice. However, he misses both shots. Unfortunately, Vanya’s love towards Yelena is also meaningless. Despite Vanya’s affection and yearning for Yelena, Yelena does not love him. Vanya sacrificed his finest hours; now, to Yelena, he is just an old farm manager who has been working all his life, with nothing to show for it. He has no social status, no money, and his physique is no longer full of youthful vigor. Unsurprisingly, his confession of love is rejected. The outcome of all that Vanya does is either meaningless or wasted, just like that map of Africa in Russia, symbolizing futility.
It is noticeable that Uncle Vanya’s relationships with the Professor and Yelena, he is continually placed in a subordinate position that is comparable to that of a slave. His personal self-sacrifice to the Professor and his selfless love towards Yelena leave him powerless, as both individuals do not care for him, disregard or exploit his hard work, and disrespect his dignity. In many ways, Vanya’s position alludes to the uneven power dynamics between Africa and Russia: it is interesting to remember that, unfortunately, Africa has always been political, culturally, and socially subordinate in relation to Russia and, quite frankly, to the rest of the world during the centuries of imperialism. The map of Africa on the wall, therefore, is not simply a map; it is a complex symbol that is saturated with years of historical and political associations with powerlessness and exploitative labor.
The map returns for the second time in the fourth act, when Astrov stands up, checks the map, and asks, “I expect down there in Africa the heat must be simply terrific now. Terrific!” (Chekhov, 606). His remarkable comment deliberately brings attention to the map, stressing the importance of the message it represents: that for Uncle Vanya his life, his love for Yelena, and his efforts are all meaningless. Moreover, he still has to perform his work managing the estate after the professor leaves, just like what he does before the professor returns, “I must get back to work quickly. Do something-anything…To work, to work!” (Chekhov, 604). Not long before this seemingly innocent conversation, Astrov quarrels with Vanya about the morphine Vanya stole: “You took a bottle of morphine out of my traveling medicine case…why don’t you go into the woods and blow your brains out?” (Chekhov, 599). Although Vanya felt the urge to commit suicide just moments ago, he later returns the medicine, as though nothing had never happened. A significant but invisible dramatic act takes place, yet Vanya does not make any changes to his dreadful situation. The depressing trajectory of Vanya’s life is like a circle in which everything starts and ends at the same point. Vanya and his actions are meaningless, and the map reinforces that point. He never changes, and this problem of humanity’s stasis is perhaps the greatest lesson that one can learn from this astounding play.
Work Cited Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya. Translated by David Nagarshack, edited by Gibian, George. The Portable Nineteenth-century Russian Reader. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Penguin, 1993. Print. From page 549 to 607