(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 963 words.)

The Three Sisters Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

On Irina’s name-day, her friends and family call to wish her happiness. It is exactly one year since the death of her father, who was sent from Moscow eleven years before to this provincial town at the head of a brigade. Irina and her sister Olga long to go back to Moscow, and Masha would like to go, too, except that she married Kuligin, whom she once thought the cleverest of men. They all pin their hopes on their brother Andrey now, who is studying to become a professor.

An old army doctor, Tchebutykin, brings Irina a samovar because he loved her mother. Masha’s husband gives her a copy of the history of the high school in which he teaches; he says he wrote it when he had nothing better to do. When Irina tells him that he already gave her a copy for Easter, he merrily hands it over to one of the army men who is calling. Tusenbach and Solyony quarrel half-heartedly because Tusenbach and Irina decided that what they need for happiness is work. Tusenbach never did anything but go to cadet school, and Irina’s father prepared his children only in languages. Both have a desire to labor hard at something.

When Vershinin, the new battery commander, comes to call, he reminds the girls that he lived on the same street with them in Moscow. He praises their town, but they say they would rather go to Moscow. They believe that they are oppressed with an education that is useless in a dull provincial town. Vershinin thinks that for every intelligent person then living, there will be many more later on, and that the whole earth will be unimaginably beautiful two or three hundred years hence. He thinks it might be interesting to relive one’s life to see if one can improve on the first version.

Natasha comes in while they are still sitting at the dinner table. Olga criticizes her dress, and the men begin to tease her about an engagement. Andrey, who cannot stand having her teased, follows her out of the room and begs her to marry him. She accepts.

After their marriage, Andrey loses any ambition he ever had to become a professor; he spends much of his time gambling, trying to forget how ill-bred, rude, and selfish Natasha is. Irina, meanwhile, takes a job in the telegraph office, and Olga teaches in the high school. Tired when they come home at night, they let Natasha run the house as she pleases, even to moving Irina out of her own bedroom so that Natasha and Andrey’s baby can have it.

Vershinin falls in love with Masha, though he feels bound to his neurotic wife because of his two daughters. Kuligin realizes what is going on but cheerfully hopes Masha still loves him. Tusenbach, afraid that life will always be difficult, decides to give up his commission and seek happiness in a workingman’s life. Vershinin is convinced that, by living, working, and struggling, people can create a...

(The entire section is 1158 words.)

The Three Sisters Summary

The Three Sisters Act I Summary

The Three Sisters cover image

Act I
Act I takes place on May 5th of an unspecified year, in an unspecified provincial town in Russia. It is the...

(The entire section is 330 words.)

The Three Sisters Act II Summary

Act II
Almost a year later, in mid-February, Andrei and Natasha are married and living in the family house. The...

(The entire section is 295 words.)

The Three Sisters Act III Summary

Act III takes place nearly four years after the opening of the play; Irina, who was twenty then, tells Olga...

(The entire section is 336 words.)

The Three Sisters Act IV Summary

Act IV
About a year after the previous act, in the garden outside of the house. The soldiers have been assigned to a...

(The entire section is 201 words.)