Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 827

Alienation and Loneliness
Despite the fact that they have been there for over ten years and that their house is full of visitors, the Prozorov sisters feel lonely in the town where they live. For one thing, they are better educated than the people around them, which isolates them intellectually. Even though Vershinin tells them that he doubts there could even be a town "so boring and so dismal that it doesn't need intelligent, cultivated people," it is clear that they do not share his optimistic viewpoint and his ability to look to the future. Their friends in town are, for the most part, from the military, who are posted there temporarily and are inevitably going to move on, as they actually do in the end. Andrei shuts himself in his room with his violin and Olga removes herself from company, complaining that she has headaches. Even the engagement between Irina and Tuzenbach, which she enters into with reluctance because she feels the need to be more involved, ends with abrupt violence, ruining her chance to break through the wall of alienation that has surrounded her family since their father's death. Their hope that life in Moscow would make much difference by putting them among their own type of people is cast into doubt by Vershinin, who has just come from Moscow and recalls being lonely there.

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Love and Passion
This play is a net of interwoven romances, all of them presenting differing degrees of sincerity and passion. Each character gives readers a different view of love. Andrei's love is that of the hopelessly exploited, while Natasha acts as the exploiter to him and as a martyr to her children. Masha and Vershinin are sincerely happy with each other, escaping confining marriages, while Kulygin, though unimaginative, displays a pure and selfless love by comforting his wife when she is upset over losing her lover. He confides also to Olga that he should have married her, not Masha, indicating that he is bound to Masha by devotion. Irina has an open and jocular relationship with Chebutykin, who dotes on her, even though a relationship between them is out of the question because of their age difference; Chebutykin also keeps alive his memory of their mother. Tuzenbach is content with his own love for Irina, even though he knows that she does not love him, while Solyony, who is perhaps incapable of love, patterns his life on the romantic figure of a poet. None of these relationships ends up happily, although there is an admirable nobility to the way that all of these characters hop on to their elusive passions.

Meaning of Life
There is a lack of meaning in their lives at the core of the misery felt by these three sisters. And the other characters in this play reflect the various attitudes that the sisters attach to the meaning of life. Olga spends her time trying to recapture the past through memory, especially by recalling her mother and father in detail—it is not surprising that she ends up as a teacher, dealing in established ideas and living in an apartment with Anfisa, who functions as a living relic of her childhood. Masha, who once was artistic, has fallen into despair and claims to have forgotten her piano skills. As she explains it, there is no point to being cultured in a provincial town: "We know a lot that isn't any use." Her affair with Vershinin reawakens her talent, though, and she uses music to communicate nonverbally with him in public. Irina is full of hope for the future, but her conception of the future—of what exactly it is that she is looking forward to—is vague, so she can hardly do anything to make it become real. She is willing to marry Tuzenbach if that will enable her to go to Moscow, where she hopes to find true love. The contradiction in her plan is apparent, but she is unable to come up with anything less self-defeating. She ends up dedicating herself to the equally vague idea that work will bring meaning to her life, although she does not know exactly how.

The people who come to the Prozorov house toss around ideas about what gives life meaning, discussing the mysteries of existence as of they were involved in a game, as when Vershinin says, "Well, if they won't give us any tea, at least let's philosophize," and Tuzenbach responds, "Yes, let's." Vershinin supports the idea that work gives life meaning, even of no results are visible. Solyony represents an absurdist view that discussion is just meaningless chatter, which he mocks with the purposely meaningless comments he utters. Chebutykin echoes this idea of meaninglessness when he drops the clock that belonged to the woman he loved and argues that what seems to be reality might not be. Tuzenbach learns to appreciate the world around him only when he is faced with death in a duel.

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Characters