Three Sisters by Chekhov: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:05 Anton Chekhov
  • 0:29 Characters and Plot Summary
  • 4:14 Major Themes and Analysis
  • 6:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Maria Cochran

Maria has taught Composition, Communication, Literature and Intro to Humanities since 2000. She holds a doctorate in Rhetoric and Professional Communication

As the title promises, the play is about three sisters: Olga, Masha, and Irina. The sisters waste their lives away in a Russian provincial town and dream about returning to Moscow, the big city where they grew up.

Anton Chekhov

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.

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