The Theme Money in the Play The Bear by Anton Chekhov

The Bear is one of Chekhov’s lesser-known plays performed in 1888. It is majorly a farce, a comedy which satirizes common human weakness, especially when it is about to relationships. The theme money is subtle but it triggers the complication of the drama and runs in the background upto the climax. It reveals that how money can affect a person’s behavior and emotions. The play further reveals about the role of women in relation to the issues of money.

The play is set before 1917 revolution under Tsar government. The both main characters are introduced as landowners: Smirnov is a landowner and Popova is a landowning widow. Under Tsarist government the landowners held their position in the second place under aristocrat; hence enjoyed a privileged position in the society. They owned a large ground of farmlands and a number of workers who worked under them. They lived in manors and had servants to tender them. 

Though the main characters belong to the landowning class, both their characteristics seem to be a foreshadow of coming Russian revolution where farmers grouped together and protested, starting the decline of the landowning class. As the play reveals, Smirnov is not introduced as a successful landowner whose land is about to be seized by his creditors. On the other hand, Popova is a widow whose husband Nicolai Mihailovitch has passed away leaving his wealth to his wife. Popova as seen in the play is locked herself, mourning for her late husband leaving the steward to handle the affairs of money and wealth.

The plot starts with an issue of money: The complication is that Popova’s late husband was in debt for ‘one thousand two hundred roubles.’ to Smirnov who has to pay the interest on a mortgage on the next day; so, he urgently needs his money back:

“And I’m in a state of mind which, if I don’t pay the interest due tomorrow, will force me to make a graceful exit from this life feet first. They’ll take my estate!”

A land owner’s whole wealth depends on his estate. Losing the state means, losing his fortune of his whole life. Therefore, Smirnov is in a state of do and die. Conflict stars because Popova cannot pay the money as her steward is not present.

Smirnov seems to be a softer character inside his coarse appearance. Though he behaves in an abominable way, he seems not to be a thug like person. It is revealed by the way of his debtors avoid paying his debt. In contrast, his creditors are not patient nor sympathetic as he says; as he says he is too gentle with his debtors:

“Not one of the swine wants to pay me! Just because I’m too gentle with them, because I’m a rag, just weak wax in their hands! I’m too gentle with them!”

Smirnov prejudices that no one pays him back because he is too gentle in reaction. Therefore, he thinks of dealing with Popova in an impulsive way. His coarse behavior hurts the pride of Popova and she criticizes the behavior of Smirnov to be ‘a rude, ill bread man.’ When the conflict is developed further, she calls him a ‘bear’ which develops the play to the climax. The bottom line of the behavior of Smirnov is: he behaves in such a coarse and abominable way, just because of his dire necessity of money; money makes him a bear.

Popova is in a state of mind which hinders her from thinking of the money matters. Apart from that, it seems she is not handling the money matters by herself. Smirnov cannot understand the reason why ‘she is not disposed to attend money matters.’ This leads to development of the conflict of the play:

Popova: I told you perfectly plainly; I haven’t any money to spare; wait until day after to-morrow.

Smirnov: And I told you perfectly plainly I don’t want the money the day after to-morrow, but to-day. If you don’t pay me to-day, I’ll have to hang myself to-morrow.

Popova: But what can I do if I haven’t got the money? You’re so strange!

Smirnov is in a state of urgency to get the money, as well as he is judgmental about Popova and he believes that she refuses to pay the money because he is too gentle. And further, he seems to be representing the male chauvinistic pre-revolutionary Russia where women lived under the shoe of men.

Under Tsarist government men were said to be the bread winners. Women’s task was to stay at home and take care of her family. They were not given education nor any opportunity to attend an occupation. Hence, man was a dominant character and, on the other hand, he had to bear the burden of his family expenses. Therefore, wealth was a serious matter when considering a marriage. The man supposed to be rich enough to take care of a woman and a family, which was regarded as a qualification for marriage. When Smirnov proposed Popova, he reveals his wealth:

“…I am a land owner, of respectable character, have an income of ten thousand a year. …I own some fine horses… will you be my wife?”

Play ends with Popova giving in for Smirnov’s request and Smirnov giving up his money to get the hand of Popova. Though money is prominent for a person’s survival, as play reveals, love is more powerful than any material things in the world as Smirnov consider he would give up money and everything to receive the hand of Popova. 

Though the theme of money is subtle in the play, it reveals some important features of Pre-revolutionary Russia and how money and wealth can affect person’s life; even a person’s moral conduct can be disturbed when money is on his way. However, taken as a whole, the play is about the clumsy behavior of humans when they encounter extreme issues in their life. Money is always seen as an extreme factor of life which can decide a person’s way of life.

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