Maria has taught Composition, Communication, Literature and Intro to Humanities since 2000. She holds a doctorate in Rhetoric and Professional Communication
Anton Chekhov wrote more than 200 stories and close to a dozen plays, while also working as a country doctor most of his short life, which spanned from 1860 to 1904. So, unlike many of his characters, Chekhov certainly did not waste his life away.
Three Sisters, as all of Chekhov's most popular plays, was written near the end of his life, in 1900. It has four acts that span three years in the lives of the Prozorov family.
Characters and Plot Summary
Let's start with Act One. We meet three sisters, Olga, Masha, and Irina, and their brother Andrey. This is the Prozorov family. The Prozorovs grew up in Moscow, the country's capital. They are cultured and educated, but nobody appreciates their talents in the provincial town where their father, the general, brought them eleven years before the play begins. The sisters hate their provincial life and dream about returning to Moscow some day. The play starts a year after their father's death.
The elder sister Olga is a high school teacher, but her work brings her no satisfaction. She feels her youth 'oozing away' day by day. Masha, the middle sister, married young. Her husband, Kulygin, is a high school teacher. He loves her and dotes on her. While she found him smart initially, she is now bored with him and hates her married life. The younger sister Irina turns 20 on the day the play begins. She dreams about finding true love and devoting her life to meaningful work.
Andrey, the brother, aspired to be a university professor, but becomes a small-town clerk in the provincial town where they now live. Having abandoned science, Andrey wastes away his life drinking and gambling. Andrey's girlfriend Natasha, a local girl, annoys the sisters with her provincial manners and vulgar tastes.
The first act starts with Irina's birthday (or 'name-day') party. The guests are the officers from the military battery stationed in town. The battery commander Vershinin knew the sisters' father and visited their Moscow home when the sisters were young. Meeting Masha, now an adult woman, Vershinin is attracted to her. The attraction is mutual, but both Masha and Vershinin are trapped in their unhappy marriages, and nothing can be done to change the situation. The other two officers, Solyony and Tuzenbakh, are in love with Irina.
The events in Act Two happen almost two years later. Natasha has married Andrey, had a baby, and moved in with the Prozorovs. Nothing dramatic happens, but Natasha gradually takes over the house, pushing the sisters out. She bans social gatherings and quenches all the fun under the pretext that the baby will be disturbed. Masha and Vershinin continue their romance; it is clearly the best thing that has happened to them in years. Masha's husband Kulygin knows about the affair, but he is too weak to confront them. Tuzenbakh and Solyony both declare their love for Irina. Put off by Solyony's crude manners, Irina chooses Tuzenbakh, but she is clearly not in love.
Act Three starts dramatically with a fire in town. The fire does not directly affect the lives of the main characters, but it is a foreshadowing of disturbing events yet to come. At this stage in the play, Natasha has completely taken over the household. She mistreats the old servants whom the good-hearted Prozorovs considered part of the family. Andrey gambles away the house. He is full of guilt and self-hatred, but it is too late to change anything. Irina accepts Tuzenbakh's marriage proposal, more out of hopelessness than love, and hopes to leave town and start a new life full of 'meaningful work.'
We are at the end of the play by Act Four and still no drama. But hang onto your seat, it's coming! Solyony challenges Tuzenbakh to a duel over Irina and kills him. Irina is not crushed, because she did not love him, after all. In spite of the loss, she still plans to leave town and devote her life to teaching. Olga accepts the position of the school headmistress and will now live in a school apartment, abandoning the house to Natasha. Masha and Vershinin have to end their hopeless romance because the battery is leaving town.
The final lines in the play are somewhat life affirming. Olga pronounces them as the sisters watch the battery depart to the happy marching music. 'It seems as though in a little while we shall know what we are living for, why we are suffering . . . If we only knew -- if we only knew!'
Major Themes and Analysis
If you expect Shakespearean passions or the fight between good and evil, Chekhov's play will disappoint you. 'A drunk doctor will be lying on the sofa, and it will be raining outside,' said one sarcastic critic about Chekhov's plays.
Chekhov, indeed, got rid of 'event plots' in his plays. Nothing major happens. According to Chekhov, ordinary life with its wasted opportunities, human misunderstanding, and alienation is by itself dramatic enough. So dialogues in the play are more important than the action. The true meaning is often hidden between the lines. The only dramatic event, the shooting of Tuzenbakh, happens off stage. You learn about it from the dialogue.
The main theme in the play is the conflict between reality and dream, action and inaction. The characters refuse to face reality and, most importantly, they are incapable of changing it. They are talkers and thinkers, not doers or fighters. The sisters repeat over and over again that they want to return to Moscow, yet do nothing to make it possible. This gap between reality and dream grows deeper as the events develop. Moscow, the place of the sisters' happy past, turns into a myth by the end of the play, a symbol of unattainable dreams.
So does Chekhov expect us to feel sympathy for these losers? He gave us some hints when he referred to his plays as tragicomedies. Chekhov wants us to see comedy as well as tragedy in the lives of his characters. There is a sad and bitter irony in the gap between the characters' aspirations and the way they actually live. They want to be useful and do meaningful work, yet all of them hate their occupations and do little to change the situation. They talk to each other nonstop, but fail to hear and feel each other's pain. Irina turns a cold shoulder to her suitors. Olga sees Masha's love for Vershinin as nonsense.
Still, as weak and absurd as these people are, we sympathize with and even relate to them. After all, isn't their search for meaning, their desire to be loved and understood, what makes us human? So Chekhov must have done something right, because a hundred years after Three Sisters was written, the boring lives of three sisters in a 19th-century provincial Russian town continue to move audiences to tears all over the world.
Three Sisters, written in 1900, is a play by the Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov. It centers on a conflict between reality and illusions. The Prozorovs, educated and refined, squander their youth in a provincial town, incapable of changing their lives for the better. Moscow, where they hope to return, becomes the symbol of their futile dreams.
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