In her excellent book Reading Chekhov – A Critical Journey, Janet Malcolm discusses Chekhov’s attitude to romantic love and beauty. She refutes Gary Saul Morson’s view, as expressed in his essay ‘Prosaic Chekhov: Metadrama, the Intelligentsia, and Uncle Vanya’, which reads the play as the apotheosis of the prosaic. Morson understands Chekhov to be faulting Astrov for rejecting the estimable, plain Sonya and pursuing the useless, beautiful Yelena: ‘Chekhov, like Tolstoy, usually regards love based on passion or romance with deep suspicion.’
Janet Malcolm disagrees fundamentally with this approach to Chekhov’s play:
Yes, Chekhov adopts the Tolstoyan position in [his short story] The Duel, but in Uncle Vanya he swerves sharply from it. In his own life, far from regarding romantic love with suspicion, Chekhov considered it the sine qua non of marriage. He could not have put the matter more plainly than he did in a letter of 1898 to his younger brother Michael (who had been urging him to marry):
To marry is interesting only for love. To marry a girl simply because she is nice is like buying something one does not want at the bazaar solely because it is of good quality. The most important thing in family life is love, sexual attraction, one flesh; all the rest is dreary and cannot be reckoned upon however cleverly we make our calculations. So the point is not in the girl’s being nice but in her being loved.
Indeed, in Uncle Vanya, far from faulting Astrov for rejecting Sonya and pursuing Yelena, Chekhov suggests that Astrov can do nothing else. It isn’t a matter of choosing between a good course of action and a bad one. In these matters, one has no choice. ‘Alas, I shall never be Tolstoyan! In women, what I like above all is beauty,’ Chekhov wrote to Suvorin in 1891. The words ‘beauty’ and ‘beautiful’ echo throughout the play. Far from celebrating prosaic virtue, Vanya mourns its pitiful insufficiency. The action of the play is like the throwing of a stone into a still pond. The ‘beautiful people’ – Yelena and Serebryakov – disturb the life of the stagnant household of Voinitsky and Sonya, stir up the depressed and exhausted Astrov, and then abruptly depart. The waters close over the stone and are still again. Uncle Vanya is a kind of absurdist Midsummer Night’s Dream. Strange events take place, but nothing comes of them. Visions of happiness appear and dissolve. Everything is as it were before. In the heartbreaking speech with which the play ends, Sonya speaks to Vanya of her faith in a ‘bright, lovely, beautiful’ afterlife. Real life remains lustreless, uninteresting, unbeautiful.