Uncle Vanya by Chekhov: Summary & Characters

Instructor: Meredith Spies

Meredith has studied literature and literary analysis, holding a master's degree in liberal arts with a focus on depictions of femininity vs masculinity in literature and art.

This lesson looks at the characters of Chekhov's 'Uncle Vanya.' In addition to a brief summary of the play and an overview of the characters, the lesson discusses the origin of 'Uncle Vanya.'

The Origins of Uncle Vanya

Based on Chekhov's own earlier work The Wood Demon, Uncle Vanya focuses on a professor and his much younger second wife visiting the rural homestead which provides them with their comfortable living. While Uncle Vanya has a rather uncertain and unhappy ending when it comes to the future of the characters, The Wood Demon was more directly positive. Uncle Vanya is considered by critics to be a reworking of The Wood Demon inspired by Chekhov's visit to a prison island and witnessing life there.

Summary of Uncle Vanya

Every family has its problems. Sibling rivalry, political differences, different sports teams to fan over, the interminable rambles over Thanksgiving dinner when you are desperate for Uncle Jack from out of town to just go home and stop talking... Very few, though, match the tangled, oppressive, and manipulative family problems of Uncle Vanya.

In Uncle Vanya, Vanya is the brother of the professor's late first wife and also the estate manager. He and the local doctor both fall hard for the professor's wife, Yelena. Sonya, the professor's daughter from his first marriage, is also helping to run the estate, and seeing her stepmother's beauty and charm reminds her how unattractive she herself is and how unrequited her adoration for the doctor is, especially with Yelena on the scene.

The professor shows little affection for his family (brother-in-law, daughter, and mother) who have been running the estate; he instead announces plans to sell it off and move with Yelena to Finland because he cannot afford his lifestyle in Russia any longer. Tensions overflow and, in a fit of rage, Vanya attempts to shoot his brother-in-law, but fails. Later, Sonya and her grandmother discover Vanya has stolen morphine from the doctor and is suicidal, but they make him return the drugs and his plan is foiled.

The professor and Yelena are leaving the estate and all will continue as it has for years, ultimately. The play closes with the estate-living family going about their tasks, and Vanya complaining about how they must work so hard to support others and how little they have and how joyless life is for them. Sonya reminds him that they will rest when they die and receive rewards in heaven.

Image of cast of Uncle Vanya in 1922
Uncle Vanya cast

Characters in Uncle Vanya

Professor Serebryakov is the primary antagonist in Uncle Vanya. An elderly professor living in the city with his second wife. His family runs the rural estate which supports his lifestyle.

Astrov is the local doctor to the estate.

Yelena is the Serebryakov's second wife and a great beauty who turns heads wherever she goes, and is much younger than Serebryakov.

Sonya is the professor's daughter with his late first wife. She assists in managing the estate and is awaiting her rest and reward in the afterlife.

Maria is Vanya's mother and the mother of the professor's late first wife. She works on the estate.

Ilya Telegin lives on the estate at the family's kindness and is very poor.

Marina is an aged nurse who lives on the estate.

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