At first, it may seem difficult to imagine that the chickens on the estate grounds symbolize anything, but they do indeed symbolize the characters themselves. They always walk in the yard, look for worms, and chirp loudly without any discernible purpose in doing so. This chirping is like the conversation between the members of this family, and thus the chickens are a symbol of the people who live in this country house, idly chattering without any rhyme or reason.
Not only does Astrov focus on his maps of Russia, but there is also a map of Africa hanging on the wall in the estate office. Maps are utilitarian documents that convey data and information in an objective fashion, but Astrov probes them more deeply to figure out the impacts of environmental/geographic change on the people themselves. He sees the reality of lived experience in maps, commenting on the map of Africa, "Down there in Africa the heat must be quite something. Terrific!" (166). Chekhov's map motif encourages the audience/readers to consider the subjective qualities that "objective" presentations of the world can end up inadvertently (or intentionally) masking.
To an extent, Helen symbolizes the femme fatale, ideal womanhood, and sex appeal. Even her name, Helen, evokes the most beautiful woman in the Greek world, whom Paris abducted. She is all sensuality, beauty, youth, idleness, and desirability; she contributes nothing to the group but her own vexing allure. Chekhov is critical of her, however: her attractiveness and sexuality are problematic for multiple characters in the play.
Alcohol permeates the play, with both Astrov and Vanya drinking copiously. Alcohol is a salve, a way to repress one's feelings of despair and disillusionment. It lets Vanya and Astrov come to terms with their diminished existence, but, as Sonya correctly notes, it also makes them obnoxious and querulous. It represents an empty way of coping with a lack of meaning in one's life.
As critic Harvey Pitcher writes, "A symbolic parallel to this human situation was to be found in the world of nature, in the threatened destruction of Russia's forests; and this symbol of the forests in Uncle Vanya is both less artificial and less obtrusive" than other symbols in Chekhov's ouevre. He further explains, "The planting of new forests becomes associated with the constructive behaviour of the characters in Uncle Vanya, and symbolizes the possibility of a better future for mankind; just as their destruction is linked to the destructive characters, and points towards human as well as natural degeneration."
Uncle Vanya Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Uncle Vanya is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.