Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 963
Nowhere in modern drama is there greater majesty or fuller substance than in The Three Sisters. These qualities issue from Chekhov’s incomparable ability to make physical data yield moral truth, domestic irritation dilate into the great cage of cosmic suffering, and a single moment beat with the immeasurability of all time. Almost nothing “happens” in the play: His characters transmit no urgency, create no suspense, feel little tension. Yet The Three Sisters offers a psychic and spiritual eventfulness so dense, yet also so delicately organized, as to make the work one of the miracles of drama and certainly Chekhov’s masterpiece. No play has ever conveyed more subtly the transitory beauty and sadness of the passing moment. None has ever expressed more shatteringly the defeat of sensitive minds and generous hearts, the pathos of frustrated personal aspirations.
The play’s structure is woven of several separate strands of narrative, resulting in a complex dramatic texture. A highly educated Moscow family, the Prozorovs, were geographically transplanted eleven years earlier than the beginning action when the father, a brigadier general, took command of an artillery unit in a provincial town. The first scene opens on the first anniversary of his death, with the three daughters and one son living in their inherited house but wishing they were in Moscow. That city is seen by them through a haze of delusions as a center of sunshine, refinement, and sensibility, in contrast to the banality, stupidity, and dreariness of their town. This vision of Moscow is, of course, a mythical opiate. The Prozorovs never move there, preparing the reader/spectator for the play’s principal motifs of nonattainment and nonfulfillment.
Olga, the eldest sister, teaches school; Masha has married a dull local teacher, Kulygin; Irina, the youngest, has a position in the telegraph office; Andrey, the family’s pride, is expected to continue his studies at Moscow University and become a professor. All four are wonderfully reared, highly educated, sensitive, and unhappily stranded in a mediocre small town where only the officers of the garrison are of their class. Chekhov concentrates on the wasting away of this superior family in a coarse and sordid environment.
This milieu is personified by Natasha, a local girl whom Andrey marries, a pretentious, bourgeois, vicious, and vengeful person who is Chekhov’s most malevolent character. She dispossesses the Prozorovs by steady degrees in the drama’s course, taking control of the house’s mortgage money and shifting the family from room to room, until she has finally evicted them from the house. In the last act, Olga is installed in a municipal apartment, Irina has moved to a furnished room, and even Andrey is ejected from his section of the residence to make way for a baby sired by Natasha’s lover, Protopopov.
In typically Chekhovian manner, the conflict is usually kept indistinct. Andrey and his sisters are too polite or too deeply involved in their own problems or simply too weak to confront Natasha directly. Nevertheless, the contrast between the town’s natives (not only Natasha but also Kulygin and, offstage, Protopopov) and the Muscovites (the Prozorovs and certain artillery officers) provides the basic theme of the clash between culture and vulgarity. The Prozorovs permit the dreary town to brutalize them. Masha tries to find happiness through a liaison with a lieutenant colonel, Vershinin, also unhappily married; then his brigade must leave, and she is again sentenced to her unbearable pedant of a husband. Olga, doomed to spinsterhood, suffers from migraine headaches. Andrey, drained of his youthful vigor, resigns himself to a minor bureaucratic post and loses heavily at cards.
Irina’s story is more complicated: The most beautiful of the sisters, she is desired by a lieutenant, Baron Tusenbach, a cheerful soul despite a gloomy philosophy of life, and Captain Solyony, a disagreeable, menacing bully. For a while, Irina is tormented by dreams of Moscow and a perfect romance. Then she resigns herself to marrying the likable, decent Tusenbach, who has abandoned his commission to seek salvation through hard work in a brickyard, even though she does not love him. In act 4, however, Solyony, having sworn that if he cannot have Irina, nobody else shall, challenges Tusenbach to a duel and kills him.
Everything fails the Prozorovs. As their culture fades, Masha forgets her piano-playing skills, Irina is perpetually tired, Andrey trails through life aimlessly—the forces of darkness move in on them like carrion crows, slowly and relentlessly withdrawing all that once promised them contentment. The question that the play finally asks, articulated by Olga in her last speech, is whether the Prozorovs’ defeat has any ultimate meaning. According to Vershinin, it does: He has faith in the future, whose generations will be more productive and progressive, as civilization marches toward perfection. In a friendly debate, Tusenbach disagrees:Life will be just the same as ever not merely in a couple of hundred years’ time, but in a million years. Life . . . follows its own laws, which don’t concern us, which we can’t discover anyway.
Even gloomier is Chebutykin, a sixty-year-old physician who had once been in love with the mother of the Prozorov family and who has transferred that affection to Irina, having installed himself in the family circle. He takes refuge from his disappointment through alcohol, neglect of his medical knowledge, and a profound nihilism.
In the last act, Chebutykin does not raise a finger to prevent the Solyony-Tusenbach duel—he sees everything that comes to hurt the Prozorovs but never intervenes. With the family’s hopes shattered, the sisters huddle together, statuesque, motionless, defeated, listening as Olga muses, “if we wait a little longer, we shall find out why we live, why we suffer. . . . Oh, if we only knew, if only we knew!”