Uncle Vanya is a play, the thematic contents of which are based mainly on the characters of the play. These characters are consumed with lethargic boredom and each one of them expresses individual regrets over their unsatisfactory life. The whole play is a continuous process of these characters bemoaning their old age, pining over lost love and continuously expressing their distress and despair of their lost love. Each character harbours only negative thoughts and suffers from a heavy sense of loss. All this bursts through the surface of everyday giving way to torrents of unhappy dialogues. This play does not have the content to boast of a theme on the other hand each character is an epitome of negativity and that os the theme that runs throughout the play.
Uncle Vanya is a thematically preoccupied play with what might sentimentally be called the wasted life and a survey of the characters and their respective miseries will make it clear. Uncle Vanya the eponymous hero is deeply embittered for having wasted his life doing nothing. DR. Astrov is seen bemoaning the onset of old age. Vanya's mother, Maria pathetically fends off her unhappiness by studying pamphlets while Serebryakov's wife Yelena finds herself bound to a miserable husband whom she doesn't even love. As for Serebryakov having retired himself he feels consigned to the tomb his estate represents while Sonya has resigned herself to a loveless, dull and monotonous experience just awaiting death for peace. Uncle Vanya's characters feel trapped in their hopeless existences, mourn unrecoverable losses and harbour deep resentment of those around them: the result is a volatile household that has gone “rack and ruin” to quote Yelena
Throughout the play, a number of characters will describe themselves and others as “strange”, “eccentric” etc thereby showing a sense of alienation from both those around them as well as their own persons. These motifs of estrangement are central to understanding the characters' sense of themselves and events on and off-stage. Astrov, the philosopher in Uncle Vanya, marked by Chekov's extended, brooding and introspective speeches that have little references to those around the speaker. He is a dejected man, who is overworked and ruined by the commitments of his professional life. He is so crestfallen that he is unable to want and love and that he will be forgotten as soon as he is dead. Astrov's life is so empty and disappointing that one can see his double in the patient that died under chloroform. Though he can be considered as one of the important characters in the play, he doesn't play a significant role in the progress of the play as he missed a chance of seducing Yelena. Though their affair might offer brief distraction from their mundane life but it does not come to fruition and has a rather nostalgic farewell.
Among the other characters, Sonya has resigned herself to a monotonous existence. She is so pessimistic that she feels that only death will bring freedom. Inseparable from this theme is the theme of impossible love. Uncle Vanya in reality is one Chekov's melodramatic plots and he heavily relies on this. Sonya is Serebryakov's simple, gentle and homely daughter by his first marriage. She, like Vanya dedicated her entire life to the maintenance of the estate. She is quick to chastise those who would disrupt the household her father in particular and attempts to keep peace among her relation. In the subplot she is involved in an hopeless affair with Astrov. In considering Sonya, one must remember that her misery never reaches tragic proportions. She is too pathetic to be fallen heroine and too modest to be a martyred lover. Sonya makes a soliloquy, alternatively expressing her joy at Astrov's presence and her unhappiness in having been implicitly rejected.
Yelena is a somewhat mysterious figure. She is not as used to monologues as Astrov and Voynitsky. A number of characters think her to be a shadow of a woman who does little more than idly eat, sleep and charm with her beauty. This portrait of Yelena, perhaps gives her a short shrift. Rather than just charm, it is clearly evident that she fascinates all the major characters of the play, apparently seducing Astrov and Voynitsky without any effort, thereby Chekov's dependence on indirect action leaves us speculating. Not only does she woo men with her beauty she also distracts Sonya from her work entirely. In act III, it is seen that her idleness is being held responsible for all the members shirking their duties and is also being described as being “infectious” and “bewitching” for being lazy. In act IV, Astrov will more ominously cast her as a harbinger of disaster, precipitating both the ruin of the land which in turn reflects the ruin of the household. While others seem to have wasted their lives, she appears to have abandoned a budding music career and married an aging Serebryakov, with who she remains out of habit. One thing common between her and the other characters is the sense of self-estrangement. In her case self estrangement is not caused as a result of alienation because of age or displacement but because of being an incidental character in her own life, in feeling inconsequential in her own existence.
Uncle Vanya, the so called hero of the play is an epitome of bitterness. He is constantly grudging having sacrificed his life and lent support to as useless a man as Serebryakov. So embittered is he that he laments having toyed his entire life for a person whom he worshipped as a scholar but who turned out to be a Charlatan. To put more directly he is the one who points out the miserable nature of other characters' lives. He is obsessed with his wasted life and a major object of his jealous obsession being the professor's beautiful wife, Yelena. Despite him being one of the major characters in the play, he often finds himself silenced, dismissed and rejected. In act III, he suffers two major humiliations. First, he returns with a bouquet of roses for Yelena only to witness her near seduction by Dr. Astrov and second he fails to shoot his bitterest enemy, Serebryakov in the next scene. This bungled murder is also the play's preposterous pseudo-climax, as Vanya misses his foe twice from point blank range. Vanya thus appears as a less tragic hero than a pathetically broken man. By the fourth act Vanya is reduced to nothing and therefore falls into a state of depression and throws himself into his drudgery to keep his misery at bay. He speaks of madness, his dread of empty years to come and hopelessly dreams of a new life. Towards the end he doesn't find solace in anyone not his mother, not even Dr. Astrov and neither his niece, Sonya who urges him to look towards death for peace.
Uncle Vanya does not rely on symbols heavily though one can identify numerous objects on stage as symbols. In Act I, for instance the chickens represent the idly chattering members of the household. Astrov's “colossal” and “asinine” moustache shows a heavy sense of alienation from himself. The bouquet of autumn roses in Act III a peace offering he intends to give Yelena until Vanya finds her in Dr. Astrov's arms, also symbolize a lot. These sad and lovely roses do not reach their intended destination and thus are a source of reminder of his hopeless love. Finally, one may also consider a map of Africa on Voynitsky's wall. It's bizarrely of place and this perhaps also represents what he yearns for a land far away from the Russian provinces but now seems irretrieveable all because of him wasting his life.