The Three Sisters Essays and Criticism
by Anton Chekhov

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Soyony's Love for Irina

(Drama for Students)

The characters in Anton Chekhov's drama The Three Sisters present various emotional conflicts, but one generalization that can be made about all of them is that they all hope that love will provide release. The sisters of the title feel themselves being dragged down by boredom, and two of them turn to love affairs to do for them what circumstances haven't. It might at first seem that "boredom" is the wrong word, because we tend to think of boredom as slight, as an inconvenience that will pass, but it is clear that Olga, Masha, and Irina are suffering acutely from a lack of intellectual stimulation, that the small town cannot keep up with their trained minds. What is not so clear is whether Chekhov wants us to believe that love really is itself a value that can stop lives from going to waste, or if it is just an illusion that these characters fool themselves with to make their situations bearable.

Masha loves Vershinin, even though they have opposite interests—she dreams of the city and he, bored with the city, values the country. Nor does the fact that he has nothing in common with her stop Andrei from falling in love with Natasha. Chebutykin promises at the end to return to Irina, the daughter of the woman he once loved, as "a sober, G- G- Godfearing, respectable man." Irina is not in love with Tuzenbach, but she does believe that there is someone in Moscow who is destined to be her true lover. All of these attempts at romance, from halfheartedly to perpetual, seem motivated by the characters' attempt to inject some reality back into their otherwise controlled, colorless lives. It makes perfect sense that people finding themselves confined should look to love for escape. Whether what they are feeling is "true" love is a broad philosophical question that Chekhov just does not provide enough information to answer.

Strangely, the one character whose motives for love are most clearly presented is Solyony, the boorish, angry staff captain. By all indications, Solyony should be incapable of love. He is a cretin, a braggart, and a bully, an insecure man who mocks intelligent conversation when he is unable to understand it and who kills men he feels threatened by. Soon before the end of Act II, this obnoxious man declares his deep love for Irina, using vocabulary that is strange for him. For one thing, his speech is more straightforward than it has ever been, not hidden behind a joke or a snarl as it is everywhere else in the play. For another, it is here that he uses graceful, colorful language, such as adjectives ("exalted," "pure," "marvelous," "glorious," "incredible") and similes for comparison. He seems earnest about his emotions and about his wish to express them.

It would be easy to make light of Solyony's declaration of love as a weak attempt to take advantage of Irina, which would fit with his cynical personality. It is also tempting to see his clumsy attempt to romance her as his bid to take place in the carnival of romance that is going on around him. It's most unlikely that Solyony might really be in love, but that is a possibility that has to be considered also.

To me, it seems that Solyony is sincere in his claim to love Irina, but that his sincerity is not, as he seems to hope, enough to free him from his dark personality. Considered this way, Solyony can be seen as more than merely a plot device to sprinkle comic or tragic relief onto an otherwise uneventful, talky play. Taking him seriously as a lover proves him to be a key player near the intellectual and emotional center of The Three Sisters.

Solyony's function throughout much of the play is to disrupt the flow of the conversations going on around him. Conversations in polite society, even those concerned with meaning, tend to fall into patterns and lose their sense of urgency without someone like Solyony to challenge the speakers. When his method works as he presumably intends, he ends up, like the fool in Shakespeare's King Lear, exposing the shallowness of the culture...

(The entire section is 10,554 words.)