Uncle Vanya Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:
This detailed literature summary also contains Bibliography and a Free Quiz on Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov.
Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov's masterpiece of frustrated longing and wasted lives, was originally a much more conventional drama in its earlier incarnation. Previously known as The Wood Demon, the play was rejected by two theaters before premiering in Moscow in December of 1889 to a very poor reception (it closed after three performances). Sometime between that date and 1896, Chekhov revised the play, altering it radically. Although the work that emerged is more static than the originalin terms of narrative events, far less happensit is considered one of the most poignant evocations of thwarted desire ever written. Vanya is literally haunted by the man he might have been: "Day and night like a fiend at my throat is the thought that my life is hopelessly lost."
Uncle Vanya was scheduled to premiere at the Maly Theater in Moscow, but the Theatrical and Literary Committee overseeing it and other imperial theaters asked Chekhov to make substantial revisions to the play. Instead of making the suggested changes, he withdrew the play and submitted it to the Moscow Art Theater, where Uncle Vanya was first performed on October 26, 1899, under the direction Konstantin Stanislavsky. It was well received.
With Uncle Vanya and Chekhov's three other dramatic masterpiecesThe Sea Gull, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry OrchardChekhov demonstrated that a production could be riveting with out conforming to traditional notions of drama. In Critical Essays on Anton Chekhov, Russian author Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita) noted that Chekhov's plays are not overtly political or freighted with a social message: "What mattered was that this typical Chekhovian hero was the unfortunate bearer of a vague but beautiful human truth, a burden which he could neither get rid of nor carry." Today, Chekhov stakes a double claim in the world of literature: he is equally acclaimed as a master of the short story and of the dramatic form. Uncle Vanya is widely considered to be his greatest achievement in the latter genre and a masterpiece of modern drama.
Read more from the Study Guide
Anton Chekhov’s oeuvre opened Russian literature and world drama to the art of everyday trifles and occurrences. In exploring Russian society, Chekhov questioned the purpose of life, but he was less interested in finding an answer than in posing the right questions.
To understand Chekhov’s drama, it is necessary to understand the milieu in which he wrote, the innovations that were changing Western theater practices, and the stance of the dramatist himself. Russia in the 1880’s and 1890’s was experiencing the erosion of rigid class distinctions that had characterized the ancien régime. Much of the landowning gentry was impoverished and under the necessity of selling off parcels of their large estates to the rising mercantile and industrial class. Serfdom had finally been abolished, and the enormous peasant class was faced with both displacement and new opportunities. The age of those great Russian novelists Fyodor Dostoevski and Leo Tolstoy was coming to a close, and as it did it was opening the way for a new kind of art. Throughout Western civilization, science and technology were modifying the lenses through which artists and philosophers looked at the world and humanity’s place within it.
This was the age of literary realism and naturalism, and writers began to focus on the lives and problems of ordinary people. On the stage, the theater of social consciousness pioneered by Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg gave rise to a new kind of dramaturgy and stagecraft. Chekhov took the realistic innovations of the Scandinavians one step further in creating his kind of naturalistic drama, a drama with no real beginnings or endings, and one that recognizes the complexities and continuities of life.
Chekhov, trained as a physician, was eminently suited for this kind of examination. His practice had carried him to all the levels of Russian society and intensified his objective observational powers. Initially acclaimed as a short story writer, he began to write for the theater in the early 1880’s. The four plays considered his masterpieces—Uncle Vanya, Chayka (1896; The Seagull, 1909), Tri sestry (1901; The Three Sisters, 1920), and Vishnyovy sad (1904; The Cherry Orchard, 1908)—emerged from the period during which Konstantin Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko founded the Moscow Art Theatre, where Chekhov’s plays first found successful productions. Chekhov did not, however, approve of the highly realistic and tragically inclined interpretations that the...
(The entire section is 1050 words.)