We're not sure why, but Chekhov seems to have a straighter face in The Three Sisters than in The Seagull or The Cherry Orchard. The Seagull's protagonist, Konstantin, is subjected to pratfalls and humiliations that make him look a fool, even though we sympathize with him. No such crude fun is made of the Prozorov sisters. The barbs are gentler.
Take Irina—her idealism is adorable because it's just so darn innocent. Sure, when she says ridiculous things like "How wonderful it must be to get up at dawn and pave streets, or be a shepherd, or a schoolteacher who teaches children, or work on a railroad," we kind of want to puke at her naiveté (1.25). Still, even though Chekhov doesn't make her a saint, he also doesn't write scenes in which she falls down the stairs.
Chekhov was a fan of these ladies; is he going easy on the weaker sex? Did he think women couldn't be as funny? Was it inappropriate for turn-of-the-century actresses to slip on banana peels?
The protagonist sisters are subjected to some mildly mean tricks, often at the hands of their sister-in-law, Natasha. Multilingual Masha is mashed between the Skylla and Charybdis (an Odyssean monster sandwich, if you will) of Kulygin's tiresome Latin and Natasha's awful French. And Natasha gets Irina's goat at the end of the play. "Sweetie, that belt doesn't do a thing for you" (4.158), she says, almost directly quoting Olga's criticism in Act I. Ouch.
Still, we mostly feel sorry for them. Nothing turns out the way they hoped, and we like them enough to wish it would.
The Three Sisters is definitely a tragedy. There's a lot less of the tomfoolery and pratfalls that make critics argue that The Cherry Orchard, another Chekhov drama, is a comedy. Not so much in this one. Sure, there are some light moments for the sisters, but mostly we watch life crush their dreams one by one. Less resilient ladies (or a more melodramatic playwright) might put a suicidal end to it all when the sisters' lovers abandon them, their fiancés get shot in senseless duels, and a tacky soccer mom devours their house. In Chekhov's realistic reflection of life, the sisters take the licking and keep on ticking.
The Three Sisters is about the three Prozorov sisters. Notice Chekhov doesn't call the play Irina or Masha or Olga or even The Prozorov Sisters. He's purposely created multiple protagonists; he's interested in comparing and contrasting the way they each deal with the challenges of life. Think about it: Harry Potter wouldn't be as sweet a wizard without his pals Hermione and Ron, right? Well, it's basically the same here. Just with less butterbeer and more vodka.
So here's a preview: Olga, the eldest, lives in the past, filled with regret; Masha lives in the present and makes impulsive decisions that hurt others. And Irina, the youngest, is always looking to the future, dreaming up some new plan that's going to fix everything—think moving to Moscow, finding work, teaching. Yeah, it sounds depressing already. But Chekhov paints a pretty powerful picture of three ladies at the turn of the twentieth century, and there's even some humor in there, if you know where to find it (and trust us, we Shmoopers always know). Anyway, there’s a lot of lore surrounding the origin of The Three Sisters. It’s been said that Chekhov was inspired by the lives of the Brontë sisters—Anne, Emily, and Charlotte, the nineteenth-century authors of Agnes Grey, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre. The three lived in solitude and published under male pseudonyms. The Brontës also had a talented brother, Branwell, who, like Andrey in Three Sisters, lived a life of disappointment. So like that, but the Russian version. Trust us.
At the end of The Three Sisters, Olga, Masha, and Irina have just survived the death of a fiancé, the abandonment of a lover, and eviction from their own house at the hands of their sister-in-law. Chekhov writes in the stage directions, "the three sisters stand close to one another" (4.174). They may have lost pretty much everything else, but they have each other.
In that support, the women seem to find some resilience—even hope. Olga feels better when she imagines that "our sufferings will turn to joy for the people who live after us, their lives will be happy and peaceful, and they'll remember us kindly and bless us. My dears, my dear sisters, life isn't over yet… the music sounds so happy, so joyful, it almost seems as if a minute more, and we'd know why we live, why we suffer. If only we knew" (4.177). Inspiring, huh?
This search for meaning, this not-giving-up, is contrasted with Chebutykin's nihilistic "What difference does it make?" (4.178). (For some textbook nihilists, refresh your memory of The Big Lebowski. You know: "We belief in nosing.") Anyway, back to Russia. The doctor is totally disengaged from life, while the sisters keep trying to understand and improve it.
The Three Sisters is set in a small town in Russia in 1850. We have a good idea of the dates because of some contemporary references in the play (see "Allusions"). But Chekhov was writing the play right at the turn of the century, with the benefit of hindsight. Serfdom (similar to slavery, only Russian) was abolished in 1861. Chekhov sets the play just at a moment teetering between the old way (nobles with land and servants) and the new way (industrialization, railroads, etc.). The Three Sisters is an intimate portrait of how these changes affect one particular family.
The Prozorovs have moved from Moscow to a provincial town that's fifteen miles from the nearest railway station. That's not bad if you have Lyft, but they live even farther away from the Verizon store, so they don't even have smartphones. The sisters feel isolated, removed from the flow of culture, and stuck in a time warp. No one else speaks foreign languages, plays musical instruments, or appreciates philosophy like they do. For city girls, life here is dull and stifling.
Let's go act by act to get to know the setting a bit better. Act I takes place in the spacious living room of the Prozorov house. Their wealth and refinement are evident in the décor, the piano, the presence of servants, and the ability to host a big birthday party. It may be a boring town, but at least they're living the cushy life. Plus, it's May, at noon, and the weather is sunny and bright—a reflection of Irina's optimistic mood.
In Act II, we're still in the living room, but it's late at night the following February. As you can imagine, this means that the same space, though still upscale, doesn't have quite the aura of wealthy optimism it did in the previous act. Instead of a boisterous group scene at the dinner table, the characters have intimate, candlelit conversations. It's dark and windy outside, mirroring the characters' growing fatigue.
Act III takes place in Olga and Irina's room up in the attic. A couple years have passed, and the sisters have retreated to the attic at the demand of Natasha. There's a more claustrophobic feeling in this smaller room (duh). It's their bedroom but they're forced to entertain their friends all the way up there to avoid Natasha. Sometimes rising in the house is the same as falling in the world.
By Act IV, Natasha has succeeded in almost entirely evicting the Prozorovs from the house. Even her husband Andrey pushes the baby carriage around in the garden while her lover Protopopov sits inside. The sisters are bidding farewell to the departing soldiers, and Masha now totally dissociates herself from her former home. "I won't go into that house," she says (4.74). What was once the sole spot where you could find a bit of entertainment in this town is now swallowed up by the overall misery of rural Russia.
The Three Sisters is pretty straightforward. There's no difficult language (assuming you remembered to buy the English translation and not the Russian one) and the characters are people we can sympathize with. Probably the most challenging thing is just to keep reading… it's much more interesting to see this play live.
Chekhov believed that theater should reflect life. So just think of his playwriting as the opposite of Hollywood. He doesn't give us a potboiler with lots of onstage sex, violence, and suspense. Events like the fire, the sexy sleigh ride, the baron's death, Andrey's devastating gambling match—we don't see any of them. Instead, they're communicated through after-the-fact reports and discussed by the characters now dealing with the repercussions. (This is the way Greek playwrights did it too, by the way.)
What does this mean for us? Well, things happen in The Three Sisters like they do in real life. Can we get a duh in here? Anyway, just like in life, some people die, some are ruined, some have affairs. We're not often witnesses to the tragedies and dramas themselves, but sit us down at a dinner table, or pour us a strong marg, and we're ready to dish it out.
Acts I, II, and III all contain Irina's desperate, repeated expression of the desire for "Moscow! Going back to Moscow! Selling this house and everything and going back to Moscow…" (1.7). Especially at first, everyone's on the same boat. Even Andrey fantasizes about a return: "I'd love to be in Moscow right now, sitting at a table at Testov's or the Grand Moscow… nobody knows you and you don't know anybody, but still you don't feel like a stranger" (2.24).
For the Prozorovs, Moscow represents everything they want and everything they can't have in their little town. The eldest, Olga, remembers the past, her father, the flowers in the street, and, mostly, her lost youth. Masha longs for the intellectual and social stimulation of the big city. Irina longs for love.
But as Vershinin says, "once you're actually living in Moscow you won't notice it anymore either" (2.112). "It," of course, being love for the long-wished-for place. So Moscow, in the play, is always a representation of unfulfilled desire, rather than anything the characters could actually get.
Birds play a big role in The Three Sisters, too. Tuzenbach uses them as a metaphor for the human journey: "Birds that migrate—cranes, for instance—just fly and fly… they keep on flying without knowing where or why. They fly, and they will always fly… they can talk philosophy if they want, but they can never stop flying" (2.82). Birds talking philosophy. Pretty deep, huh?
Meanwhile, Chebutykin calls himself "a migrating bird that's too old to fly" as he urges Irina on to happiness (4.42). And Masha, longing for escape, notices the birds "migrating already. [...] Swans. Or maybe they're geese. You happy things…" (4.74). Birds are symbols of freedom, mobility, and beauty.
Clocks make an appearance twice in the play. In the first act, the clock strikes noon, and Olga is transported back in time: the clock struck the same way on the day their father died. As far as we know, clocks usually always strike the same way at noon, but that's not the point. The prominence of the clock indicates how the passing of time is a major theme in the play.
Don't believe us? When Chebutykin smashes an heirloom clock (possibly the same one as in Act I; Chekhov doesn't specify), he's railing against time, life's unfairness, his own suffering, and the suffering of the women he loves. If smashing a clock isn't a symbol of responses to time passing, we don't know what is.
For these sibs, anticipation and dreaming are one in the same: Moscow, the symbol of fulfillment for the Prozorov sisters, still seems like a possibility. As part of the hopeful vibe, Irina's excitedly making plans to work; Masha meets Vershinin, who invigorates her dormant intellectual curiosity; Andrey is thrilled by his love for Natasha. Olga just hangs out—we can tell she doesn't love being a schoolmarm, but hey, even she's got something to anticipate.
In a nutshell, all of the dreams from Act I are fizzling out. Irina's work exhausts her; Olga is even more beaten down; Masha carries on an affair with Vershinin; Andrey's marriage is a failure. Pretty much everything is going downhill and ending in frustration. The characters are starting to rub each other the wrong way.
You better believe that when there's a fire—even when it's offstage—it represents some internal flames for Chekhov's characters. The conflicts that were just a spark in Act II now explode as the family overloads on stress. Olga and Natasha have a knock-down-drag-out brawl over Anfisa, the faithful old servant who can't do too much in the realm of useful work anymore. Pathetic Kulygin runs around looking for Masha, who is blatantly hiding from him now so she can have her affair. And Andrey acknowledges his own wife's affair and the fact that he mortgaged his house. Fuego!
All of the dreams and expectations that started the play have been vanquished. Nobody's going to Moscow. Irina, who had already lowered her standards to say "yes" to the baron, loses even him. She'll end up a spinster like her older sister. Masha returns to a boring life with her boring husband, and Olga becomes what she never wanted to become—the headmistress. Poor Andrey is stuck pushing around a baby carriage while his wife entertains her lover in their parlor. The best the sisters can manage is just to keep on living.
Three Sisters opens with a lot of possibility. Irina holds out hope not only for Moscow, but for finding fulfillment through work. Olga isn't overflowing with optimism—she's always kind of stuck in the past—but she applies herself to mothering the clan and can join in Irina's enthusiasm. As for Masha, she's pretty pissed with the whole order of things, but things start to look up when Vershinin arrives—he's just the sort of intellectual presence she needs to shake up her boring lifestyle.
In other news, Andrey and Natasha are about to get engaged. Also, the doctor gives Irina embarrassingly big birthday presents, the baron tries to flirt with her, Solyony is obnoxious, and so is Masha's husband, the "pedagogue." Still, nothing too dismal is happening yet. All in all, it looks like pretty good stuff is happening for the Prozorovs.
Uh oh. It becomes clear that those Act I dreams may not come to pass after all. It's only been two years, but Natasha and Andrey have already fallen out of whatever love thang they once had going on. Natasha's having an affair and is planning to kick Irina out of her room to make baby Bobik more comfortable. Since when do babies need that much space? Clearly, the house is in a spot of disarray.
As for the sisters themselves, Irina's exhausted by her unfulfilling job at the telegraph office. Olga's been filling in for the headmistress despite being really, really not into it. And Masha is knee-deep in an affair with Vershinin, but his whole wife-trying-to-commit-suicide thing doesn't make that too fun either. Things are kind of messed up, hopeless, and complicated—and it's Russia, so you better believe it's about to get worse.
The Prozorov house is safe, but that doesn't mean things are easy. The fire keeps the family up all night as they help people fleeing from their burning homes. Olga's gathering clothes for the victims, and one by one the characters come up to her bedroom. The high stress level resulting from the fire basically ups the stakes of all the conflicts that began to emerge in the prior section. Get ready for…
All the characters are totally tweaked out by the fire, resulting in the most emotionally charged scenes in the play. Olga and Natasha fight over the fate of Anfisa, the old servant woman. Natasha wants the old woman out since she can't work; Olga wants to protect her because she's actually a nice person. This battle is followed by Chebutykin's outburst, Irina's nervous breakdown, and Andrey's tearful apology for mortgaging the house.
The baron gives such a sweet and philosophical farewell to Irina that the audience starts to worry about him (like Irina, we were kind of indifferent to him before. Oh, the wonders of philosophy). Anyway, when he asks her to put some coffee on for him, he seems like a goner. Still, we wait in suspense. Will he make it? Will he and Irina escape and get married and be happy together? That's the only hope we're clinging to, since everyone else seems pretty miserable, what with the soldiers heading out (including Masha's lover Vershinin), Olga moving in at the school (no one wants to be a headmistress), and Andrey babysitting while his wife hangs out with her lover (ouch).
Sure, Baron Tuzenbach wasn't the love of Irina's life or anything, but she had come around to the idea of starting a new life with him. She was ready to go for the plunge. After this disappointment, she must figure out what to do with her life all over again.
Meanwhile, Masha's sobbing her head off after Vershinin marches away and Olga's not feeling so great either. This is when we realize the whole "tragedy" thing is about to come to a head.
Well, what's the alternative? Olga, Masha, and Irina have all experienced a great deal of disappointment and pain, but hey, they have each other. Olga, in particular, wants to understand why they have to suffer ("If only we knew!"), but no answer seems forthcoming. All they can do is keep working and pushing on into the future. What will happen to these sibs next? We smell a sequel…
Yes, Three Sisters is in four acts. This three-act thing is just another way of thinking about the structure.
It's our lucky day—part one of the general three-act breakdown also fits with the first act of the play itself. In this act, the sisters are planning for the future and still firmly intend to go back to Moscow. Andrey proposes to Natasha. People come in and out. Vershinin arrives—a breath of fresh air for all the sisters, but particularly for Masha. Things look kind of hopeful, if for no other reason than we can tell that this act is a break in the tedium of their lives before the curtain rose.
The biggest chunk of the play, the metaphorical Act II covers Chekhov's literal Act II, Act III, and the beginning of Act IV. Natasha begins taking over the house and the sisters are pushed upstairs. Andrey gambles away the assets that might have gotten them back to Moscow. There are fires, drunken doctors, and angry suitors. Things are pretty bleak, and the sisters are as far away from their goals of self-fulfillment as they could be.
This is where it gets weird: Act III (our plot scheme) = Act IV (à la Chekhov). The revelation of Tuzenbach's death ends Irina's hopes, which she'd already considerably scaled back once the whole true-love-and-fun-job stuff turned out to be pipe dreams. Olga, Masha, and Irina rally at the end of the play, looking with resignation—but also resolve—toward their future. They just have to keep keeping on.