(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Three Sisters Anton Chekhov

The following entry presents criticism on Chekhov's Tri sestry (1901; The Three Sisters). See also Anton Chekhov Short Story Criticism, Anton Chekhov Drama Criticism, Gooseberries Criticism, and The Seagull Criticism.

Considered to be one of Chekhov's most moving and sensitive dramas, The Three Sisters reflects the pervasive pessimism of its era. The play tells the story of the three Prozorov sisters who despise their small-town life in Russia. Though the women pine for the glamour of Moscow where they previously lived, they refuse to do anything to change their unhappy lives. Chekhov used the Prozorov family as an analogy for the futility and despair experienced by Russians of that era. Since its initial production, The Three Sisters has been widely acclaimed for its subtle artistry and insight.

Plot and Major Characters

The Three Sisters examines the lives of the Prozorovs, a Russian family who live in a provincial garrison town far from Moscow. The three sisters, Masha, Olga, and Irina, all long to return to Moscow and spend their time bemoaning their humdrum lives. As the male head of the family after their father dies, their brother Andrey is thought to be their only hope for a secure future. But he spoils both his future and his sisters' by marrying Natasha, a greedy and vulgar woman who eventually forces the sisters to leave their own home. Rather than studying, Andrey spends his time gambling, while Masha, Irina, and Olga fail at jobs, marriage, and romance. At the end, as dreams are uniformly shattered, each sister ponders why life has brought them so much pain.

Major Themes

The Three Sisters, like Chekhov's plays of his later period, intertwines the mundane and the tragic. Chekhov focuses on the women's inability to be happy and their brother's staunch rejection of any promise in his life. But Chekhov is not above the use of humor to poke fun at the stubborn backwardness of his characters. The Three Sisters uses a subtle form of indirect action that, for Chekhov, mirrored real life. If reality is paced in a certain fashion, Chekhov reasoned, his plays should reflect that reality.

Critical Reception

In 1901 the Moscow Art Theater presented The Three Sisters. Early critics, especially Russian commentators, interpreted the play as yet another chapter in the ongoing saga of Russian landowners' demise. Other criticism focused on a perceived lack of storyline and dramatic conflict in the work. Scholars have consistently pointed to the careful construction of the play. While The Three Sisters may appear static in print, it is complicated to perform. Because The Three Sisters, like Chekhov's other dramas, called for a performance style that was less grandiose and more given to inflection and allusion, a flamboyant production could easily obscure the intention of Chekhov's work. Fortunately, the noted director Konstantin Stanislavski, who directed Three Sisters at the Moscow Art Theater, developed a psychological, introspective dramatic style appropriate to Chekhov's plays. In later years The Three Sister's depiction of futility has caused Chekhov to be considered a precursor to dramatists of the Theater of the Absurd.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Ivanov (drama) 1887

Leshy [The Wood Demon] (drama) 1889

Chayka [The Seagull] (drama) 1896

*Dyadya Vanya [Uncle Vanya] (drama) 1899

Tri sestry [The Three Sisters] (drama) 1901

Vishnevy sad [The Cherry Orchard] (drama) 1904

**Pyesa bez nazvaniya [That Worthless Fellow Platonov] (drama) 1923

Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem A. P. Chekhova (dramas, short stories, notebooks, diaries, and letters) 1944-1951

The Oxford Chekhov. 9 vols. (dramas and short stories) 1964-1980

*This work is a revision of the earlier drama Leshy.

**This work was written in 1881.

Desmond MacCarthy (essay date 1920)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Three Sisters, in The New Statesman, Vol. 14, March 13, 1920, pp. 676-77.

[MacCarthy compares the characters and plot of George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House to The Three Sisters and reviews an early production of The Three Sisters.]

“What does Bernard Shaw know about ‘heartbreak’—gay, courageous, resilient, handy, pugnacious, indispensable man that he is?” I reflected as I walked slowly away from the Court Theatre, where the Art Theatre Company had been acting Tchekhov's play The Three Sisters. For I had been sitting three hours (or was it months?) in real “Heartbreak House”; not in a “Heartbreak House,” of which the roof, as in the case of one London music-hall, was sometimes rolled back, releasing all the stuffy used-up air, leaving the antics of humanity bare to the speculation of the stars; not in a house of which at least half the inmates were crackling and sparking with vitality like the most electric of cats, but in one where they were more like dying flies in a glue-pot. It was a queer notion Mr. Shaw had of his own work when he thought he was writing in the spirit of Tchekhov; though we need not regret that he found as usual his inspiration in himself and created something individual and new. Indeed, that public criticism did not recognize a sharp discernment of actualities everywhere present in the fantastic implausibility of his characters shows, I fear, that public criticism is in an exceedingly feeble condition. What is Mr. Shaw's conception of “heart-break”?—a sudden disillusionment, cleansing and cutting as a flash of lightning. “Major Barbara,” the poet in Candida, the girl in Heartbreak House endure a sharp wretchedness, but not the misery that maims; presently they are not merely themselves again but twice as strong as before. Mr. Shaw's conception of such suffering is a price (sometimes it may be a high one) paid for freedom, but paid down at once on the nail and done with. “My heart is broken,” cries one character. “Then,” replies another, “You have lost happiness and found peace.” Moral pain is only life educating one, Man's will is his Kingdom of Heaven, are two root beliefs in Mr. Shaw. He has a most penetrating eye for the odd substitutes for self-respect and happiness men and women will adopt; he rips them up—exposes them, laughing; but a victorious mockery produces a very different atmosphere from Tchekhov's. Nothing, indeed, can be further removed from it. Mr. Shaw's characters in Heartbreak House may be failures, but they carry off their failure, play their parts, with gusto; they remain amusing to themselves and others. They may, as a fact, be left high and dry with life rushing past them, but the spot where they stand is not sad, dim and slimy as the shores of Styx, where Tchekhov's characters, poor, inhibited, excitable creatures, their eyes fixed on a pearly streak of light on the horizon, wait and wait, wailing for waftage. Contrast the lines from Mr. Shaw's play about heart-break quoted above with Masha's speech when her surreptitious affair with Colonel Vershinin comes to a huddled ending: “Grabbing at one's happiness and eating it in little bits and then having it suddenly taken away from one, makes one hard and vulgar.” We have had our English Tchekhov; his name was George Gissing. The Three Sisters reminded me of Odd Women; Gissing's long novels remind me of Tchekhov's short stories, spiritually and sociologically. There is the same insistence on the deadly quarrel between sensitive refinement and poverty; both are impressed with the fact that often the best qualities in people make them helpless and unhappy; both have infinite pity for weak-winged aspiration; both believe that coarseness of fibre is the best outfit for life, refuse to be reconciled to that or to become cynical themselves, but lament it should be so; both seem to fix the blame in part on our civilisation, yet to both the trouble seems also to lie deeper than that, indeed in the texture of life itself; both always see peeping over the shoulder of the muse of tragedy the blank puffy face of the goddess, Anti-climax, with her idiotic, meaningless smile; to both the sweetest thing in life is that kindred spirits who feel and suffer from these things, should keep close to one another—yet chance is always tearing them apart; both understand the poignancy of the flatness of good-byes; in both hope is a torpid chrysalis, never quite dead—a touch and it stirs in its sluggish dream. … As I dived for my hat, when the curtain fell on The Three Sisters, an instantaneous memory-picture rose before me. It was of a crowded upper room of a public-house. The air was hot and misty; shiny coppery faces like new pennies at the bottom of a basin of soapy water, loomed through the smoke of pipes and cheap cigars; a subscription “sing-song” was going on, interrupted from time to time by the crash of a glass or the squeal of a cuddled hoyden. By the side of the jingling, rowdy piano a young girl stood and sang. She had a sallow, swatty face, round shoulders, and gentle protruding eyes. She sang of a love which she would never know: two more years of work and a diet of sweets and pickles, and she would become a sour-smelling, toothless, anœmic draggletail. Why did this scene recur to me that moment so vividly? Thank you, my helpers and servers! Was it not in picture the story of the soul...

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F. W. Dupee (essay date 1964)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “To Moscow Again,” in The King of the Cats and Other Remarks on Writers and Writing, Second Edition, The University of Chicago Press, 1984, pp. 84-90.

[In the following essay, Dupee examines the stylistic and thematic limitations of Chekhov's work and the special demands that The Three Sisters places upon the performers.]

“The profundity of Chekhov's works is inexhaustible to the actor,” Stanislavsky said. But under present theater conditions, Chekhov's profundity, like Shakespeare's, can involve liabilities, for audience and actors alike. Perhaps it was so even in the patriarchal days of the archetypal Moscow Art Theater, Chekhov's shrine. There...

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Thomas R. Whitaker (essay date 1977)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Dreaming the Music,” in Fields of Play in Modern Drama, Princeton University Press, 1977, pp. 79-101.

[In the following essay, Whitaker compares the musical elements of The Three Sisters with George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House and Paul Claudel's Break of Noon. ]

You seem wide awake tonight as you settle into your seats and begin to scan the program, but you must be dreaming—for what director in his right mind would dare to run these three talky plays together in repertory? Yet there they are, spelled out in black on green: Three Sisters, Heartbreak House, and Break of Noon. And your ticket-stubs—M 12 and 13, just...

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Howard Moss (essay date 1977-1978)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Three Sisters, in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXX, No. 4, Winter, 1977-78, pp. 525-43.

[In the following essay, Moss examines the subtle elements of Chekhov's character and thematic development.]

In Three Sisters, the inability to act becomes the action of the play. How to make stasis dramatic is its problem and Chekhov solves it by a gradual deepening of insight rather than by the play of event. The grandeur of great gestures and magnificent speeches remains a Shakespearian possibility—a diminishing one. Most often, we get to know people through the accretion of small details—minute responses, tiny actions, little gauze screens being...

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Clayton A. Hubbs (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Chekhov and the Contemporary Theatre,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXIV, No. 3, September, 1981, pp. 357-66.

[In the following essay, Hubbs discusses the various dimensions of themes and characterization in The Three Sisters.]

In recent years we have seen a new appreciation of Chekhov's plays on the part of general audiences as well as students of drama. Directors have emphasized Chekhov's contemporary quality, and critics have attempted to define elements in his dramatic techniques that link him with Beckett, Pinter, and other contemporary playwrights. In this updating of Chekhov, the nature of his dramatic realism has been a subject of increasingly enlightened...

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Karl D. Kramer (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Three Sisters; Or, Taking a Chance on Love,” in Chekhov's Great Plays: A Critical Anthology, edited by Jean-Pierre Barricelli, New York University Press, 1981, pp. 61-75.

[In the following essay, Kramer examines the role of love in The Three Sisters and the characters' reactions to their romantic entanglements.]

For all the talk about Three Sisters, it is still extraordinarily difficult to determine exactly what the play is about. One prominent school places the emphasis on the sisters as inevitably ruined creatures. Beverly Hahn, for instance, speaks of the “inbuilt momentum towards destruction” in the sisters' world.1...

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Simon Karlinsky (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Huntsmen, Birds, Forests, and Three Sisters,” in Chekhov's Great Plays: A Critical Anthology, edited by Jean-Pierre Barricelli, New York University Press, 1981, pp. 144-60.

[In the following essay, Karlinsky discusses the images of hunting and the forest throughout Chekhov's work and points to its significance in The Three Sisters.]

In describing the domestic arrangements of her parents at Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy's daughter Aleksandra emphasized the major role that dogs and horses played in their day-to-day existence.1 Few people who live in the twentieth century find themselves in such close proximity to such large numbers of these two...

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Richard Peace (essay date 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Three Sisters,” in Chekhov: A Study of the Four Major Plays, Yale University Press, 1983, pp. 75-116.

[In the following essay, Peace discusses the creative genesis of The Three Sisters. ]

Chekhov began work on The Three Sisters in August 1900. It was the first play he wrote specifically for the Moscow Arts Theatre after their earlier successes with The Seagull and Uncle Vanya. The play received its premiere on 27 January 1901, with Olga Knipper, soon to be Chekhov's wife, playing the role of Masha. The Three Sisters is described as a ‘drama in four acts’.

In Act I of Uncle Vanya Chekhov...

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Charles J. Rzepka (essay date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Chekhov's The Three Sisters, Lear's Daughters, and the Weird Sisters: The Arcana of Archetypal Influence,” in Modern Language Studies, Vol. XIV, No. 4, Fall, 1984, pp. 18-27.

[In the following essay, Rzepka points out the similarities between The Three Sisters and several of the plays of William Shakespeare as well as Chekhov's preoccupation with the classical and Shakespearean archetype of three sisters.]

The paths of literary influence are often obscure. In a letter written from Nice, January 2, 1901, Chekhov warned Stanislavsky, who was already directing rehearsals of The Three Sisters back in Moscow,


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Carol Strongin Tufts (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Prisoners of Their Plots: Literary Allusion and the Satiric Drama of Self-Consciousness in Chekhov's Three Sisters,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXXII, No. 4, December, 1989, pp. 485-501.

[In the following essay, Tufts praises the satirical elements of The Three Sisters.]

Chekhov signals his audience from the very beginning. As the curtain rises on a set divided into a “drawing room with columns, behind which is seen a ballroom,”1 a set which is itself a stage within a stage, we see the Prozorov sisters, each dressed in a costume that is emblematic of her situation in life and her view of herself, and each fixed in the posture that...

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Joanne B. Karpinski (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Ghosts of Chekhov's Three Sisters Haunt Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart,” in Modern American Drama, edited by June Schulueter, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990, pp. 229-45.

[In the following essay, Karpinski notes the similarities between The Three Sisters and Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart, which include a trio of females, the domestic setting, and humorous elements.]

In Mississippi Writers Talking, Beth Henley identifies herself more with an older tradition of playwrights than with her contemporaries (in a prose style that may cause the gentle reader to doubt the assertion):


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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Brahms, Caryl. “The Three Sisters.” In Reflections in a Lake: A Study of Chekhov's Four Greatest Plays, pp. 79-107. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976.

Traces the critical reception of The Three Sisters.

Bristow, Eugene K. “Circles, Triads, and Parity in The Three Sisters.” In Chekhov's Great Plays: A Critical Anthology, edited by Jean-Pierre Barricelli, pp. 76-95. New York: New York University Press, 1981.

An examination of the groupings of threes in The Three Sisters.

Emeljanov, Victor. “Komisarjevsky Directs Chekhov in London.” Theatre Notebook 37, No. 2...

(The entire section is 514 words.)