Study Guide

The Three Sisters

The Three Sisters Summary

Three Sisters mainly follows the story of—wait for it—three sisters: Olga, Masha, and Irina Prozorov. They live with their brother, Andrey, in a big house on the edge of a small Russian town. The townspeople are kinda backward and boring compared to their educated and culture-lovin' family, so this set of sibs is not too fond of the town to begin with.

Believe it or not, the only halfway interesting people around are the guys in the military. Basically, the Prozorov kids are worldly, well-educated army brats. And being in the army in Tsarist Russia pretty much meant you were in with the aristocracy and, once you got through the fighting stuff, probably developed a taste for the finer things in life. So ever since the family moved from Moscow eleven years prior (with their father, now dead), the sisters have obsessed over the dream of moving back to the big city.

But guess what? It's not happening. Olga, the eldest, is a spinster schoolteacher and eventually becomes a headmistress living with her elderly maid. Masha, the middle sister, is married to another schoolteacher, Kulygin, whom she despises for his small-mindedness. She has an affair with the officer Vershinin because he's given to just the sort of philosophizing that really starts her engines. And guess what happens: the affair ends in heartbreak.

Poor Irina, the youngest, has fanciful ideas about the value of work, but soon realizes that, in reality, work sucks the life out of her. She's also in love with the idea of love, but doesn't get to experience it. Finally she comes around to saying "yes" to Baron Tuzenbach, a friendly but ugly man who's been after her for years. On the day they're leaving to get married, he gets shot in a duel. Bummer.

Andrey, the brother, gives up his intellectual dreams to pursue a town girl, Natasha. They marry, have kids, and little by little she takes over the estate. At the end of the play, the upper-class Prozorovs are pretty much evicted from their own house, while Natasha, a symbol of the working class, is on the rise. Allegory, much? For anyone not already reaching for the history books, this was just a few years before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917—and you better believe smart Ruskies like Chekhov could already sense some storms on the horizon.

  • Act I

    • The stage directions situate us in the Prozorov home in a big living room where the table's being set for lunch. Hopefully you grabbed a snack beforehand, because boy have we got a long way to go.
    • We're introduced to the sisters: Olga, wearing a dark blue dress and correcting student papers; Masha, wearing black and reading; and Irina, wearing white and daydreaming.
    • Can the colors people wear and the things they do work as symbols? Hopefully you're already thinking about it.
    • It's Irina's birthday (or name day, which is the event Russians prefer to celebrate. Which one it is in the play depends on the translation you're reading).
    • Olga handily offers a little recap of their family history. The girls' father died a year ago on this day. He was a general in the military, and his assignment moved the family from Moscow to this small country town.
    • It's immediately obvious that all of the sisters want to go back to Moscow.
    • Olga is the oldest; she's single and has been teaching for four years. Hence the grading papers.
    • Masha, the middle daughter, is married, so she's stuck in this town with her husband.
    • Irina is the youngest. She's the only sister in a good mood.
    • Two officers enter: Tuzenbach and Solyony. They're having a meaningless argument.
    • On the off-chance you missed your mandatory how-Russians-make-last-names-into-jokes lesson, Solyony means "salty" in Russian. Keep that in mind with this dude.
    • Tuzenbach informs the girls that their commanding officer, Vershinin, will pay them all a visit. He's in his mid-forties, married to a crazy woman, and has three daughters (hey, sound familiar? At least, the three daughters part).
    • The army doctor, Chebutykin, shows up. He's an old friend of the family and especially dotes on Irina.
    • Irina's dreaming of work. She doesn't want to be an idle aristocrat anymore. Tuzenbach agrees with her.
    • Masha puts on her hat to leave. She's in a foul mood, partly because the birthday party is so small. She remembers when thirty or forty officers would come to their shindigs.
    • Two elderly workers come in with a birthday cake, and Chebutykin presents a silver samovar (a fancy Russian coffeemaker, but for tea).
    • Irina's totally embarrassed by the lavish gift. Kind of like if you're at a Christmas party and most people get mugs or oven mitts and one jerk tries to out-gift everyone with an iPod.
    • Vershinin arrives. The sisters recall meeting him when they were little girls. They called him "the lovesick major."
    • He remembers when he was young and in love. Now he's not.
    • Everyone gets nostalgic for Moscow. This is kind of a theme in the play.
    • Vershinin philosophizes about the future. This is another thing that happens a lot throughout the play (everyone loves a good Russian philosophy sesh).
    • Offstage, the sisters' brother Andrey is playing the violin. He's in love with a village girl, Natasha, who none of the sisters like at all.
    • Andrey comes in and meets Vershinin. The sisters are kind of insufferable with their brother; either they tease him or they brag about how talented he is. Here's where Chekhov's "realism" comes in—what family doesn't drive you kinda crazy?
    • All of the Prozorovs are educated—too educated to feel comfortable in this provincial town. In other words, they all play instruments and know at least three languages. That means they're pretty much outcasts in a place where most people can barely whistle and only scrape by with Russian.
    • Vershinin muses that their education isn't for nothing. They may be the minority now, but in future years cultivated people will be the majority.
    • Masha decides to stay for lunch. Yes, right after Vershinin's burst of positude.
    • Masha's husband Kulygin enters with a gift for Irina—a history of the local high school, written by him.
    • He gave her the same present last year. That iPod is starting to sound better and better.
    • Masha isn't so thrilled her husband has appeared, and is even less happy that he wants her to join him at some school function.
    • Everyone goes in to lunch, and Irina and Tuzenbach are left in the living room. Tuzenbach is in love with her and has clearly already proposed to her. Awk.
    • Natasha arrives wearing colorful, tacky clothes. Olga welcomes the girl but says something snarky about her belt.
    • There's a brief table scene in which all the characters make fun of each other, Solyony makes lots of obnoxious remarks, and two more soldiers come in. Pretty much everyone actually seems like they're enjoying themselves for a minute.
    • Everyone teases Natasha and Andrey about their mutual crush. Natasha is embarrassed and runs out, and Andrey follows her. He proposes and they kiss.
  • Act II

    • We're still in the living room of the Prozorov home, but we've fast-forwarded to a couple of years later.
    • It's wintertime.
    • Natasha comes in; she's married to Andrey now and they have a baby, Bobik. Yeah, it's a weird-sounding name in Russian too.
    • We find out that the sisters had invited some carnival people to come over, but Natasha's concerned that this will be bad for baby Bobik. She convinces Andrey to take back the invitation. She's also working to take over Irina's room for her son.
    • In case we didn't already know from the bad belt, Natasha isn't very likable.
    • Old man Ferapont comes in with some papers for Andrey to sign. The guy's very deaf, and Andrey takes the opportunity to spill out his problems to someone who really can't listen.
    • Basically, Andrey doesn't connect with his wife and would love to be in Moscow sitting in a bar instead.
    • Masha enters with Vershinin. They are having a quiet, intimate conversation about her husband, his wife, and the town.
    • Vershinin tells Masha he loves her.
    • Tuzenbach enters with Irina. He's still plying her to marry him, but she's too tired to talk about it. She's been working at the telegraph office and not enjoying it. So much for her daydreams about the joys of the working world.
    • Talk turns to Andrey's gambling. He's lost a lot of money.
    • Chebutykin enters. The girls mention that he hasn't paid his rent. They don't seem too bothered by it, but it's still worth a mention.
    • Tuzenbach and Vershinin have a conversation about the future. Vershinin thinks that things will markedly improve, while Tuzenbach thinks they'll just stay the same. It's a bit deeper than that, but you get the gist.
    • Tuzenbach announces that he's resigning from the military.
    • Everyone's just hanging out in the living room. Vershinin gets a letter from his daughter. His wife has taken too many pills again.
    • He leaves, and Masha's in a sour mood. She lashes out at everyone and Natasha comically corrects her behavior in bad French. That is, comically for everyone who likes laughing at Natasha. Which is pretty much everyone.
    • Solyony and Tuzenbach have a drink. Solyony confesses that when he gets in a group, he's anxious and shy. What happened to the salt of the earth?
    • Chebutykin and Solyony have a trivial dispute over a word. Everyone's getting drunk and ornery. It's less fun than the table scene last time around.
    • Natasha whispers to Chebutykin that the carnival people aren't coming. The party disperses.
    • Chebutykin and Andrey go gambling.
    • Irina is alone with Solyony. He confesses his love for her (yeah, another one), and threatens to kill any rivals.
    • Natasha asks Irina to move out of her room so Bobik can have it.
    • The bell rings—it's Protopopov, asking if Natasha would like to go on a sleigh ride. She sure would.
    • Olga, Kulygin, and Vershinin enter. Olga's exhausted; she had to fill in for the headmistress. She's also concerned that everyone in the town is talking about Andrey's gambling.
    • Vershinin's wife is out of danger. He wants to go out, but no one is around. He leaves, as does Kulygin.
    • Natasha leaves for a sleigh ride with Protopopov, who basically everyone knows is her lover.
    • Irina repeats to herself that she wants to go to Moscow.
  • Act III

    • This act takes place in Olga and Irina's bedroom (guess Bobik got his room). Fire alarms are heard in the distance.
    • Masha's lying on the sofa. She doesn't seem to care about the bells.
    • The old servant Anfisa enters, talking about the Vershinin daughters, who are downstairs. They've been run out of their house by a fire. Those alarm bells ain't for nothing.
    • Olga is collecting clothes. The family will host the Vershinins and other affected families.
    • She can't put anyone in with Chebutykin. He had been on the wagon, but he fell off. In other words, he's drunk again.
    • Anfisa suddenly begs Olga not to send her away. Olga has no intention of doing so.
    • Natasha comes in and lashes out at Anfisa for sitting down. Guess that's what Anfisa was really worried about. Anyway, Olga is appalled by Natasha's rudeness.
    • Masha exits.
    • Olga and Natasha have a huge fight. At the end of it, Natasha suggests Olga move into the basement apartment so they can stop bickering. Anyone notice a trend here?
    • Kulygin enters looking for Masha. She's not there. He hides behind a screen to surprise the doctor.
    • Chebutykin enters drunk and delivers a long monologue full of self-loathing.
    • Irina, Vershinin, and Tuzenbach enter. Tuzenbach is dressed as a civilian.
    • Tuzenbach has been asked to organize a benefit concert for the victims of the fire. When he suggests Masha play the piano, Kulygin expresses his concern. It might not be appropriate.
    • Chebutykin purposefully breaks a clock that belonged to the girls' mother. He mentions Natasha's affair with Protopopov and leaves. Whoa, dude. Chill.
    • Vershinin has a long monologue describing the scene of the fire: his little girls in their underwear, their mother not around, and chaos everywhere. It's another of those philosophy-soaked speeches he loves to spout.
    • Fedotik enters. He doesn't do much, though.
    • Solyony tries to come in to the bedroom but Irina doesn't want him to. He's mad that the baron (Tuzenbach) is allowed in, but he's not.
    • Solyony leaves with Vershinin and Fedotik.
    • Tuzenbach declares his love to Irina. Yeah, again. Masha tells him to get out; he does. She wants Kulygin to leave, too.
    • The sisters are angry that Andrey took out a mortgage on the house without asking them—or sharing the money. Plus, they're embarrassed by the affair Natasha flaunts with Protopopov, a colleague of Andrey's. And they're disappointed that he hasn't amounted to anything.
    • That's a lot of grievances.
    • Irina breaks down. Olga advises her to marry the baron.
    • Masha confesses to her sisters that she loves Vershinin. Everyone kind of knew this.
    • Andrey comes in looking for a key. He senses his sisters' resentment and confronts them.
    • Vershinin comes for Masha and she leaves.
    • Andrey at first tries to defend his wife and his decision to not pursue an intellectual career. He apologizes for mortgaging the house, and eventually gives up and starts crying.
    • Kulygin enters looking for Masha again.
    • The act ends with Irina once more begging to go to Moscow. This girl's really got a one-track mind. But with this kind of a life, can you really blame her?
  • Act IV

    • This act takes place in the old garden of the Prozorov house. The household and friends are saying good-bye to the departing soldiers. Fedotik and Rohde pay their respects and leave.
    • Kulygin has shaved his mustache and apparently looks really bad without it.
    • Irina is worried because of some friction between Tuzenbach and Solyony. More updates: she has finally consented to marry Tuzenbach, plus she's gotten her teaching certificate.
    • Olga has become headmistress and moved in at the school, so Irina has been alone in the house with Natasha. Sounds like torture. Not to mention that Protopopov has become a regular fixture.
    • Masha is waiting for Vershinin to arrive. She's anxious and unhappy.
    • Pushing the baby carriage around, Andrey comes over to Chebutykin and Masha. Chebutykin fills him in: Solyony has challenged Tuzenbach to a duel.
    • Duels used to be a big deal in Russia.
    • Andrey is worried about being in the house alone. He doesn't really consider his wife a human being anymore.
    • Chebutykin advises him to walk off into the sunset. Hey, when did we move from Russia to the Old West?
    • Solyony enters; he and Chebutykin leave for the duel.
    • Ferapont enters with papers for Andrey.
    • Tuzenbach enters and talks with Irina. She's still honest about not loving him. He says goodbye to her and she has a premonition that he won't be coming back. She doesn't try to stop him, though.
    • Andrey confesses to the deaf Ferapont all his regrets and disappointments. He must really like not being listened to.
    • Natasha yells shrewishly from the window for Andrey to be quiet. Speaking of not being listened to...
    • Anfisa is delighted that she gets to live with Olga at the school.
    • Vershinin appears. He asks Olga to help with his wife and girls (remember, he's heading off with the army). Then has a tearful farewell with Masha.
    • Masha is sobbing and Kulygin enters. In typical appearances-before-emotions form, he promises not to reproach her.
    • Natasha emerges and declares her intention to cut down all the trees in the garden. She criticizes Irina's belt (remember how we first met her?).
    • A march is played; the soldiers are leaving.
    • Chebutykin comes in with bad news: the baron has been killed.
    • The three sisters stand close to each other, feeling pretty surly about their lives, their suffering, and the need to start over. Yep, that's basically how the play began, too.
    • Everyone heaves a sigh.