How Chekhov Cuts to the Heart in Uncle Vanya
This Week on the History of Literature Podcast
For tens of thousands of years, human beings have been using fictional devices to shape their worlds and communicate with one another. Four thousand years ago they began writing down these stories, and a great flourishing of human achievement began. We know it today as literature, a term broad enough to encompass everything from ancient epic poetry to contemporary novels. How did literature develop? What forms has it taken? And what can we learn from engaging with these works today? Hosted by Jacke Wilson, an amateur scholar with a lifelong passion for literature, The History of Literature takes a fresh look at some of the most compelling examples of creative genius the world has ever known.
In the second installment of our look at Chekhov’s four major plays, Jacke takes a look at Uncle Vanya (1898), the story of an estate manager struggling to make sense of his life.
From the episode:
Jacke Wilson: Vanya has spent years, decades, living a life with the professor. His value, he told himself all those years, was in the quiet dignity, the sacrifice, the self-abnegation. And now he’s looking at his life and saying, why didn’t I live for me? And the professor breezily says, you could have taken more money. Why not? I don’t care, it means nothing to me. Which makes things worse. It’s worse! Have you ever done this, sacrificed for someone else, and then you get done doing it and you realize that it didn’t matter? The person you sacrificed for doesn’t even care. They don’t say, well, thank you, this means everything for me. They just look at you and say, well, you didn’t have to do that, why were you so stupid? You can’t think it mattered to me at all. It’s such a powerful moment. I’ve had a few moments like this, where I’ve given something up, sometimes for a long time, and the person I’ve given it up for barely notices. It’s why Chekhov is so good. It’s that kind of insight into the human heart to capture that feeling, that relationship, between the one who acts superior and the one who agreed to think of him that way and now no longer does. What do you do in such a case? How do you find your dignity?