Three Sisters | Study Guide

Anton Chekhov

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Three Sisters | Act 1 | Summary

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Summary

The play opens in the drawing room of the Prozorov family. It is the youngest sister Irina's name-day, but the day feels depressing, like much of the Prozorov sisters' lives. Ever since moving from Moscow 11 years earlier, the sisters have missed the city and longed to return to it. Their father died on this very day one year earlier, and as the play opens, the sisters discuss their memories of the funeral. Three soldiers from the nearby artillery post interrupt the conversation, joining the sisters for Irina's party. Captain Prozorov had been an army man and after his death, the soldiers provide the only company for the sisters, whose mother died a few years earlier. Attending the party are Baron Tuzenbach, Captain Solyoni, and Ivan Chebutykin, the army doctor. The three men discuss their new commander, Vershinin, who has recently been transferred from Moscow. Irina discusses how useless she feels as a young woman, as if she's wasting all her time, saying it would be "better to be an ox ... so long as you can work, than a young woman who wakes up at twelve o'clock ... then spends two hours dressing."

Chebutykin clearly favors young Irina, like a father would, and dotes on her. The discussion of work and time frustrates middle sister Masha, who misses the aristocratic life they used to live: "when Father was alive, every time we had a name-day, thirty or forty officers used to come." Thinking about it Masha threatens to leave the party saying, "I've got the hump today, and am not at all cheerful."

Two more guests arrive bringing a cake: Ferapont, an old porter, and Anfisa, the Prozorovs' ancient nurse. Chebutykin presents Irina with an ornate, silver coffee pot, so lavish it embarrasses her. Chebutykin explains the expensive gift saying, "My dear good girl, you are the only thing, and the dearest thing, I have in the world ... The only thing good in me is my love for you." His emotional outpouring is interrupted by the arrival of Vershinin, the new post commander. Vershinin remembers the sisters from when they were children in Moscow, much to their delight. They reminisce about their old town, which brings Masha to tears. She remembers Vershinin being called the "lovelorn major." She teases Vershinin, and also her brother Andrey, who joins the party playing his violin. Andrey has fallen in love with a local girl, Natasha, whom the sisters, particularly Masha, feel is too common for him. Andrey doesn't have patience for being teased because he's exhausted from a long day of studying. All of the Prozorov children have been finely educated, although Masha feels her education burdensome because she has no opportunity to use her knowledge in this small town. Vershinin boosts her spirits by suggesting her intelligence will rub off on the dim town and spread beauty: "In two or three hundred years' time life on this earth with be unimaginably beautiful and wonderful." Her good mood dampens when her husband, Kulygin, returns home from work bearing a gift for Irina. He presents her with a handwritten history of his school, the exact same gift he gave her the year before. Masha is further annoyed by his suggestion that she join him at a work event later that evening.

Most of the guests retire to the dining room, leaving Irina alone with Count Tuzenbach. It becomes clear Tuzenbach has fallen in love with Irina and would like to marry her, but Irina isn't interested. Andrey's girlfriend, Natasha, arrives for the party. Olga immediately mocks Natasha's garish dress, although Natasha doesn't notice. The sisters tease Andrey and Natasha's young relationship, which deeply offends Natasha's shy nature and she runs away from the table: "I'm shy ... I don't know what's the matter with me and they're all laughing at me." Andrey comforts her, telling her he loves her, and asking her to marry him.

Analysis

The opening act of the play presents a clear contrast between the life the Prozorov family lives and the life they think they deserve to live, and in doing so introduces the themes of nostalgia and dissatisfaction. The Prozorov family is a bourgeois family. Before moving to the village, the family threw lavish parties, spent their free time learning new languages or playing classical instruments. The sisters believed they would marry well and never have to work. When they moved to the village, however, and especially after Father died, their reality changed. Olga, the eldest, has been working as a schoolteacher for four years, and at 28 is a spinster who will probably never marry. Masha married Kulygin, who she thought was educated and intriguing, only to learn he's actually quite dull. Masha never plays her instruments any more, and no one in the village appreciates her multilingualism. The sisters value their position in the social hierarchy, and see themselves as better than a common villager like Natasha even though the hierarchy isn't particularly relevant to village life. The sisters long to return to Moscow and the "good old days" when being rich and educated offered them every opportunity. They are deeply dissatisfied with the common, domestic life they are forced to live in the village, and their unhappiness permeates the name-day party, with pouting Masha even threatening to leave because there aren't enough people in attendance.

Vershinin's arrival changes everything. He represents a direct connection to their old life in Moscow, and his philosophizing about the past resonates with the sisters, particularly Masha, in a way a history book like Kulygin's never could. Kulygin represents every boring thing Masha despises, while Vershinin represents the high-brow, intellectual life she desires. Despite their circumstances, the three sisters all believe their lives still have options. Olga has the fewest options and is the most resigned to her fate; Masha's circumstances are also limited because she is married. Irina's life is still filled with possibility, which is why she delicately refuses Tuzenbach's marriage proposal. While filled with deep longing for the past, the three sisters are motivated by a yearning for something better. These conflicting emotions (nostalgia and hope) are symbolized by the samovar. This expensive coffee pot would have been an appropriate gift in their Moscow life, but now the gift feels ostentatious, embarrassingly "awful." The sisters secretly delight in its beauty and appreciate its finery, despite the fact that it has no real place in their village lives.

The fancy gift and the arrival of a new friend from their old hometown creates a happy atmosphere. Even Masha has decided to stay and enjoy herself at the party. Andrey boldly kisses Natasha and proposes marriage. Life in Act 1 is relatively, if not completely, friendly and optimistic.

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