Three Sisters | Study Guide

Anton Chekhov

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Three Sisters | Act 2 | Summary

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Summary

Nearly two years later Andrey and Natasha are married with a baby named Bobik (Bobby). The scene opens with Andrey and Natasha talking about the long hours Olga and Irina work: "Olga at the teacher's council, Irina at the telegraph office." Natasha suggests the sisters need to take better care of themselves, then complains Bobby is getting sick because his room is too damp. Maybe, she suggests, Irina and Olga should move into the tiny upstairs room together because they're never home anyway. Andrey shrugs off Natasha's suggestion, stating that the house is partly his sisters' as well. On her way out, Natasha complains about Andrey's weight and diet. Ferapont enters and Andrey begins to open up to the old man: "I've got to talk to somebody, and my wife doesn't understand me, and I'm a bit afraid of my sisters." Like his sisters Andrey has his own nostalgia: he voices a desire to return to Moscow, where life was easier. Ferapont is hard of hearing and doesn't fully understand Andrey, so Andrey dismisses him in frustration.

Masha and Vershinin enter the room discussing the unhappiness of their marriages. Vershinin repeatedly asks for something to eat, but Masha ignores him, caught up in her own complaints: "I suffer when I see that a man isn't quite sufficiently refined, or delicate, or polite." Vershinin appears to have accepted his dissatisfaction, proclaiming that everyone everywhere is unhappy. Through their conversation, it becomes clear Masha and Vershinin are having an affair and are in love with each other, although their responsibilities prevent them from leaving their spouses. Their romantic conversation is interrupted by Tuzenbach escorting Irina home from work. Although Irina had been eager to enter the workforce, she feels frustrated with her job and has been irritable to customers. The sisters discuss how work has aged them, and how much money Andrey has recently lost gambling.

Vershinin imagines what life in the future will be like: "A new and happy age will begin." He recognizes that those living in the present won't experience it, but their suffering and labor will enable this happy future age: "There is no happiness for us ... We must only work and work." They discuss life's small pleasures—new colored pencils, for example, and warm weather. Again, the sisters voice their nostalgia for Moscow. Vershinin suggests they will be just as unhappy in Moscow: "There can be no happiness for us, it only exists in our wishes." Abruptly, Vershinin leaves the discussion when he learns his wife has once again tried to commit suicide. His sudden departure puts Masha in a terrible mood, and she lashes out at Anfisa. Chebutykin tries to tease Masha about her mood, but Masha snaps at everyone around her. Similarly, tensions brood between Tuzenbach and Solyoni, although they don't outwardly admit their disagreement. Solyoni tries to flirt with Irina, but she dismisses him, which only adds to Solyoni's bad mood. Meanwhile, Tuzenbach, Andrey, and the rest of the guests drink and grow merrier until Natasha asks everyone to leave.

Analysis

While Act 1 ended in a tone of optimism and possibility, Act 2 declines into a more fully realized depression. Once-hopeful Irina is now as overworked and depressed as her sisters. Andrey has lost money gambling, putting the family in an even tighter financial position, and Vershinin's wife has attempted suicide. Even the lighting has changed. Act 1 is set in a bright, May afternoon; in contrast, Act 2 is set in a gray, winter evening. The only glimmer of happiness is in Masha and Vershinin's affair. While the romance may offer Masha and Vershinin relief from their dissatisfaction, the continued presence of both spouses reminds the audience from the onset that this relief will only be temporary.

Chekhov's work was primarily concerned with showcasing the human experience. He wrote plays that followed character development rather than plot-progressing action. Most of the play's important events take place offstage while the audience views how those events change the characters; in choosing such a method, Chekhov is able to draw attention to the human condition, one of his overarching themes. The two characters that have undergone the most change from Acts 1 and 2 are Irina and Natasha. At the opening of the play Irina longed to join the workforce to give her life meaning. Now that she's found work at the telegraph office, however, she feels overworked, exhausted, and so irritable she snapped at a heartbroken woman whose son had just died: "She was crying. And for some reason or other I was rude to her." The work leaves her exhausted and crabby, yet she remains confident enough that her life will improve to rebuke two interested men—Tuzenbach and Solyoni—who declare their love. Interestingly, the feud between Tuzenbach and Solyoni provides the only active conflict in the play, particularly when Solyoni declares he will kill any romantic rival.

The audience begins to see Natasha's manipulation in these scenes. In Act 1 Natasha had been so demure and nervous around the sisters that she fled the birthday party after being teased. Now, Natasha openly critiques Andrey, lies to the sisters about Bobby's health, and cancels their party entertainers. Her feigned surprise at the end of the act that Protopopov should offer a sleigh ride clearly suggests they are having an affair. She has taken control over the house, best symbolized in her request that Irina and Olga should share the tiny upstairs room so her son, a baby, can sleep more comfortably. Never does Natasha consider that Irina and Olga should sleep comfortably given their hard work to keep the family financially afloat. She seems to make the request simply to test the limits of her control, just as she critiques Andrey's weight to test his reaction. Natasha's dominance is symbolized by the candle she carries throughout the house, poking light into dark corners so she can see (and meddle in) everything going on. While the rest of the characters are simply wasting time, working and waiting for things to change, Natasha is the only character actively transforming her life, yet she is cast as the villain. However, even her dominance suggests an enormous insecurity: anxious to exercise control and order the world as she wishes, she draws attention to the destabilized social structure underlying Chekhov's Russia, and her own tentative, uncertain place in it.

Vershinin's monologue about hard work attempts to create meaning in the characters' otherwise meaningless lives. He suggests that life for everyone, regardless of where they live or work, contains suffering. Whether you listen to "civilian or military, he will tell you that he's sick of his wife, sick of his house, sick of his estate, sick of his horses." Their lives are meaningless without working toward creating a better future for humanity, even if they will never experience it. He has accepted the misery of his life and encourages the rest of the characters to do the same. When the sisters suggest they will be happy again once they return to Moscow (which symbolizes the lack of fulfillment in their lives), Vershinin concludes that happiness is an illusion. No matter where they live, suffering will follow them. Statements like these give the audience deep insight into Vershinin's character. Although he appears positive and analytical, he is just as depressed as everyone else and won't do anything to change his unhappy life.

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