The Three Sisters

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 559

Originally from Moscow, the three sisters moved years before to a provincial town with their now dead father. Olga, the eldest, is a teacher in the local school; Masha is married to a man whom she once thought clever, but now realizes is foolish. Young Irina dreams of great things. All of them long to return to Moscow.

Illustration of PDF document

Download The Three Sisters Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The sisters pin their hopes on their brother Andrey, but he falls under the spell of Natasha, a vulgar local girl. Masha, a woman of deep emotions, falls in love with the handsome Vershinin, the new battery commander of the local brigade. It becomes evident that they all are becoming increasingly trapped in this hated town.

Olga is promoted to the job of headmistress at the school and Irina gets a job in the telegraph office. Andrey loses all ambition and Natasha takes over the household, dominating everyone in the family and driving away old friends and servants. Although the sisters still dream of escape to Moscow, in their hearts they know that escape is impossible.

While many of the characters in the play are weak-willed or foolish, they remain sympathetic. Each character struggles desperately to cling to a dream, a vision, some remnant of beauty. Although Vershinin and Masha are separated by his neurotic wife and her ridiculous husband, their frustrated love is both poignant and beautiful. The sisters are generous, even in adversity; they believe in the importance of hope, even when there seems to be little reason for it.

The end of the drama offers no hope for these characters. Masha must say goodbye to Vershinin, and the three sisters know that they are trapped in this provincial town. Nevertheless, they voice their conviction that they must keep trying because someday the world will be a brighter place. Perhaps they themselves will not live to enjoy that time, but they will, at least, help to make it possible.

Bibliography:

Barricelli, Jean-Pierre, ed. Chekhov’s Great Plays: A Critical Anthology. New York: New York University Press, 1981. An excellent collection of critical essays, of which four directly pertain to the play. One deals with the love theme, another discusses Vershinin, the third analyzes cyclical patterns and triads, and the fourth compares the women characters of the four major plays.

Clyman, Toby W., ed. A Chekhov Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. An eclectic work examining many aspects of the plays and stories. Specific essays focus on Chekhov’s craftsmanship, his impact in the theater, and performance on stage and in film. Good bibliography.

Melchinger, Siegfried. Anton Chekhov. Translated by Edith Tarcov. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1972. A slim volume of fewer than two hundred pages with photographs and selected bibliography. A good starting point for the student, containing biographical material, an analysis of Chekhov’s craft, and discussions of individual plays and productions in Europe and America.

Troyat, Henri. Chekhov. Translated by Michael Henry Heim. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1986. A readable biography with rare photographs of the author. Includes an interesting description of the writing of The Three Sisters and the reception of the first production.

Wellek, René, and Nonna D. Wellek, eds. Chekhov: New Perspectives. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1984. A brief collection of eight essays with a good discussion of The Three Sisters, as well as a historical review of criticism, typical dramatic structure, and Chekhov’s artistic development.

Places Discussed

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 239

Provincial town

Provincial town. The drabness of life in provincial Russia grates on the three Prozòrov sisters. Compelled to find some kind of happiness in life, Chekhov’s characters settle for professions and marriages that seem to provide some comfort against the tediousness of life, but which ultimately result in despair. Andrey’s marriage to Natasha threatens the position of his sisters within the household, and eventually the household itself, when Andrey mortgages the property at Natasha’s request.

Prozòrov house

Prozòrov house. Large provincial house left to the Prozòrov children by their father. The house is their birthright as well as the only possession of value that might provide the means of returning to Moscow. Natasha’s marriage to Andrey relegates the sisters to the position of guests in their own home, effectively eliminating any chance of selling the house for their return to Moscow. Once a symbol of hope for the sisters, the Prozòrov house becomes another anchor that keeps the sisters in the provinces.

Garden

Garden. As in many of Chekhov’s plays, a garden serves an important function in The Three Sisters by illustrating how simple and beautiful life should be. Baron Tusenbach articulates this idea just prior to his death in a duel with Solyony in the final act of the play. “What beautiful trees they are!” he says, “And how beautiful the life around them ought to be.”

Historical Context

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 734

Social Order
Traditionally, Russia had been a society with a rigid class system. From the seventeenth century through the middle of the nineteenth, this included a system under which most of the people were serfs, which meant that they were practically slaves of the people who owned the land on which they lived, and were at their mercy. Growing pressure throughout the first half of the 1800s, brought on by the international movement toward freedom that had already caused the American Revolution and the French Revolution led to government reform, giving the serfs their freedom in 1861, soon before slavery was abolished in America. Not much changed when the serfs were freed. The arrangement was for them to inherit control of the land they worked, but they had to pay back the aristocrats that they received it from, and so they ended up working the same jobs under the same bosses. As the twentieth Century began, 81.6 percent of Russian citizens were classified as peasants, although this name covered a broad category, from poor people in the cities to wealthy farm owners; 9.3 percent were merchants and what we might today consider the middle class; 6.1 percent were in the military; 0.9 percent were clergy; and 1.3 percent were the gentry, or the ruling class. Most of these class distinctions were inherited, so that the children of former serf-owners still lived luxurious lives, as the Prozorovs do in this play. As Tuzenbach explains it, he was "born into a family that never knew what work or worry meant," although he expects that in his lifetime, everybody will work. Only the military was not a hereditary class, so that many young men became soldiers in order to improve their status in the world. The Russian social order was not equipped to accommodate people who did not follow their inherited place—for instance, a son of merchants who did not become a merchant was categorized on his passport as "raznochintsy," which meant "of no particular class." There was nonetheless much social change, especially in the huge government bureaucracy. Even in the late 1800s, before the rise of communism, Russian society was run by a huge, centralized bureaucracy that approved all local changes, all construction of government projects, from the center of government in St. Petersburg. In a country of over six and a half million square miles (twice that of the United States) before modern means of communications, including telephones, it was impossible to really control all local decisions from the capital. This left the opportunity for local government officials, like the play's chairman of the county board, Protopopov, to wield control. The Russian bureaucracy had fourteen ranks that an individual could rise through with careful political manipulation, which is a central reason why Andrei does not want to raise trouble with the superior who is having an affair with his wife.

The Revolution
At the turn of the century, Russia was ruled by Tsar Nicholas II, the last of the Romanovs that had ruled Russia since 1613. Russian society was falling apart, mainly because of a failing economy that could not even provide enough food for its citizens, and as a result the public sentiment was against the royal family. The huge centralized bureaucracy made it difficult to change production practices, and the ruling family did not show any indication of caring about the suffering of the people. In 1904 the Tsar committed the country to war against Japan. The Russo-Japan War was one that the country was unprepared for, and the cost of fighting the war further strained the economy and food resources. After Russia lost the war in 1905, general strikes broke out in St. Petersburg, and soldiers fired into the crowd, killing striking peasants. The 1905 revolution was suppressed, and the Tsar and his wife withdrew even further from the concerns of the citizens. They began relying on advice from Rasputin, a mystic, and eventually let him make decisions about who should be appointed to government positions. Most of his appointees turned out to be incompetent. When World War I broke out in 1914, Russia was involved, but performed badly: Nicholas took personal control of the military, and the country's defeats were blamed on him. In 1917, after the war, the Russian Revolution changed history by establishing a communist government based on principles that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had proposed in The Communist Manifesto in 1847. Nicholas and all of his family were executed.

Literary Style

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 816

Setting
The setting of this play is given as "a provincial city." Describing it this way, Chekhov takes the middle ground between those stories that are unrelated to the towns where they occur and those that could only occur in particular locations. It is important, of course, that The Three Sisters takes place in a province, because the emotion that occurs on stage is centered around what the main characters think of where they live. Olga, Masha, Irina, and Andrei all feel that their lives would be much better if they were living in Moscow; Vershinin arrives from Moscow, and extols the charm of life in a small country town; Natasha is able to consolidate her power through her allegiance with a local politician, making her the proverbial big fish in a small pond.

More specifically, all of the action takes place at the Prozorovs' house, which is a sort of meeting place for an assortment of local characters. The soldiers assigned to the town are comfortable there because of their affiliation with the sisters' father, Colonel Prozorov. Aside from the connection to the military, though, the house is presented as a sort of center of culture for the town—certainly, its inhabitants are more refined in their manners and better educated than most of their fellow citizens. It is a grand house, likely the finest structure in the neighborhood, as indicated by the fact that it is not even evacuated when the wooden houses surrounding it are burning down.

Conflict
All dramas rely upon conflict between opposing forces, in order to keep readers interested in seeing which side will overcome. In The Three Sisters, the conflict in implied, not stated, and this accounts for the feeling that some audiences get that "nothing happens." From the very beginning, the sisters focus their concern on getting out of this small town and returning to Moscow, and the play follows a series of events that place obstacles in the path to that goal. There is no clear-cut conflict with any one obvious force interfering with their plans, but everything that happens in the play, from the fire to the feud to Natasha's dominance of the household, all serve to raise questions about whether Olga, Masha, and Irina will be able to find their happiness by returning to Moscow. The play's ending provides no clear-cut conclusion to this conflict. Only one of the sisters is going to Moscow, and none of them has been able to hold onto happiness, but they have hope that the future will be better and that they might be able to understand the significance of their lives sometime, so all is not lost.

Realism
At the end of the nineteenth century Realism became a major movement in the arts. The best way to understand Realism is to see it in terms of what it is not. It does not require its audience to know artistic traditions in order to understand what is being presented to them. It does not use educated language or complex plot structures that play well on the stage but that do not reflect the ways that people in life actually speak and act. Chekhov is often associated with Realism, especially in his short stories. Early audiences found this degree of reality to be confusing, because it meant that the characters in his plays seemed to just stand around and talk about whatever came to mind. The structure and language of his work is less obviously "artistic" than it is in traditional drama, providing audiences with fewer clues but leaving a stronger impression on those who figure out the play's meaning for themselves.

Antagonist

The issues that the sisters are concerned with in this play are not clear-cut but abstract philosophical issues that affect every moment of life equally. In order to define these issues more clearly for readers and audiences, Chekhov has provided an antagonist for the Prozorov family. An antagonist is a force in a play that acts in opposition to the protagonist, or main character, in this case three main characters (or four if you count Andrei). In addition to the many moral issues that the Prozorovs struggle with, their lives are also met with direct opposition from Natasha. She represents what they are not: she is ill-mannered, with no fashion sense, and sentimental and greedy and aggressive and manipulative. The fact that she is able to move Irina out of her own room in the second act and then move her husband out of his room in the end can be read as Chekhov's commentary that rudeness triumphs over refinement, although critics have pointed out that she is victorious in areas that the three sisters had already rejected—she becomes a powerful figure in a town that they had already rejected and she takes over a house that they had hoped to leave from the very start.

Compare and Contrast

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 202

1901: The first trans-Atlantic telegraph message was sent from England to Newfoundland, where Guglielmo Marconi received it. It was the letter "s," sent in telegraph code across radio waves.

1917: The idea of the American Marconi Company's system of broadcasting sounds through the airwaves was adapted to music and entertainment broadcasts.

Today: Wireless technology broadcasts millions of voices across the world at any given moment, more and more radio broadcasts are being taken off of the airwaves and transmitted across cable wires for better clarity, and it is possible to experience fine art and music just about anywhere.

1901: The oppressive policies of Russia's Czar Nicholas II pushed the country toward the revolution after the First World War that left the country as the cornerstone of the communist superpower, the Union of Soviet Socialists Republic.

Today: After the USSR disbanded in 1991, many of its former constituent countries, including Russia, have struggled with establishing political democracies with capitalist economies.

1901: Tuberculosis, from which Chekhov suffered for twenty years and which eventually killed him, was untreatable, and killed approximately 188 people per 100,000 in America.

Today: Vaccines have reduced the danger of tuberculosis to less than one in 100,000, although outbreaks still arise in impoverished nations that cannot afford vaccine programs.

Media Adaptations

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 61

Members of New York's Actor's Studio, including Shelley Winters, Sandy Dennis, and Geraldine Page, are in a video edition of the play, filmed in 1965. Directed by Paul Bogart. Released by Hen's Tooth Video in 1998.

In 1970, an adaptation directed by Laurence Olivier was produced by Alan Clore Films, starring Jeanne Watts as Olga, Joan Plowright as Masha, and Louise Purnell as Olga.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 404

SOURCES
Bruford, W. H., Chekhov and His Russia: A Sociological Study, Archon Books, 1971.

Esslin, Martin, "Chekhov and the Modern Drama," in Anton Chekhov, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1999, pp. 139-50.

Kirk, Irina, Anton Chekhov, Twayne Publishers, 1981. pp. 144-45.

Shaftymov, A., "Principles of Structure in Chekhov's Plays," in Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Louis Jackson, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967. p. 72.

Troyat, Henri, Chekhov, E. P. Dutton, 1984.

FURTHER READING
Hahn, Beverly, "Three Sisters," in her Chekhov: A Study of the Major Stories and Plays, Cambridge University Press, 1977, pp. 284-309.

Hahn's study, often cited by other critics, examines the interplay between sadness and hope in the play.

Gerhardie, William, Anton Chekhov: A Critical Study, St. Martin's Press, 1974.

This book is a reprint of the 1923 edition, one of the first critical studies of Chekhov before his genius was widely recognized throughout the world. It is considered the one book that any serious student of Chekhov must read.

Karlinsky, Simon, "Chekhov: The Gentle Subversive," introduction to The Letters of Anton Chekhov, Harper & Row, 1973, pp. 1-32.

A political analysis of Chekhov, who is usually treated by critics as an artist who was removed from politics. Russia at the turn of the century had a delicate political balance, and Karlinsky examines how Chekhov reflected that balance and toyed with it.

Peace, Richard, "The Three Sisters," in his Chekhov: A Study of the Four Major Plays, Yale University Press, 1983, pp. 74-116.

This short analysis of the play is mostly useful for its wealth of background information clarifying references that the play mentions quickly without explanation.

Pritchett, V. S., Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free, Random House, 1988.

Pritchett, one of the great novelists and short story writers of the twentieth century, produced this wise critical biography when he was in his eighties, and the feeling of one master story teller's appreciation of another helps readers understand why Chekhov is so universally admired.

Stroeva, M. N., "The Three Sisters in the Production of the Moscow Art Theater," translated by Robert Lewis Jackson, in Jackson's Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice Hall, 1967.

Stroeva's essay, originally printed in Moscow in 1955, is a meticulously researched piece giving a theatrical background to the act of bringing this play to life.

Szondi, Peter, "The Drama in Crisis: Chekhov," in his Theory of the Modern Drama, University of Minnesota, 1987.

This essay emphasizes the dramatic device of the monologue, and Chekhov's unique deployment of that device.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 239

Barricelli, Jean-Pierre, ed. Chekhov’s Great Plays: A Critical Anthology. New York: New York University Press, 1981. An excellent collection of critical essays, of which four directly pertain to the play. One deals with the love theme, another discusses Vershinin, the third analyzes cyclical patterns and triads, and the fourth compares the women characters of the four major plays.

Clyman, Toby W., ed. A Chekhov Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. An eclectic work examining many aspects of the plays and stories. Specific essays focus on Chekhov’s craftsmanship, his impact in the theater, and performance on stage and in film. Good bibliography.

Melchinger, Siegfried. Anton Chekhov. Translated by Edith Tarcov. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1972. A slim volume of fewer than two hundred pages with photographs and selected bibliography. A good starting point for the student, containing biographical material, an analysis of Chekhov’s craft, and discussions of individual plays and productions in Europe and America.

Troyat, Henri. Chekhov. Translated by Michael Henry Heim. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1986. A readable biography with rare photographs of the author. Includes an interesting description of the writing of The Three Sisters and the reception of the first production.

Wellek, René, and Nonna D. Wellek, eds. Chekhov: New Perspectives. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1984. A brief collection of eight essays with a good discussion of The Three Sisters, as well as a historical review of criticism, typical dramatic structure, and Chekhov’s artistic development.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Previous

Critical Essays

Next

Teaching Guide