Three Sisters | Study Guide

Anton Chekhov

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Three Sisters | Act 3 | Summary

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Summary

Nearly a year later, some changes have taken place: Natasha clearly runs the house and is having an affair with Protopopov, Tuzenbach quit the army and has taken on civilian work to impress Irina, and Chebutykin has become an alcoholic. It's 2 a.m. when the scene opens, and Olga and Irina crowd together in the tiny upstairs bedroom. A fire has broken out in the neighborhood, and people rush through the house gathering supplies for those in need. Anfisa blubbers about hoping Olga won't dismiss her from the home, which Olga doesn't understand. Natasha enters and immediately berates Anfisa for sitting down. She and Olga get into an argument about Anfisa's fate in the house. Chebutykin enters the scene, completely drunk. He accidentally killed a patient and now feels life is meaningless. While some of the characters discuss art and music, Chebutykin picks up a porcelain clock from the mantle and smashes it in an attempt to prove that what people see isn't always reality—"Perhaps I didn't break it," he says. "It only looks as if I broke it." Vershinin responds by once again prophesying that their hard work now will create a happy existence for future generations. Irina struggles to accept Vershinin's suggestions because her job has made her so unhappy.

Kulygin enters the scene and dotes lovingly on Masha, although she gives him nothing in response. She laments, "I'm bored, I'm bored, I'm bored," then complains about Andrey mortgaging the house to pay his gambling debts. As always, Kulygin tells her not to worry and promises to take care of her. When he leaves, Irina bursts into tears about her unhappiness, which prompts Masha to admit her affair with Vershinin. She loves him, although she's unsure where their future might lead. The sisters barely acknowledge Masha's affair because they're too consumed with their own unhappiness. Andrey enters and confronts the sisters about their disrespectful treatment of Natasha. He admits to having a gambling problem, for which he is deeply ashamed. Rumors fly that the army is moving the nearby battery, although the sisters can't bring themselves to accept the news. Later, Irina decides to accept Tuzenbach's marriage proposal even though she doesn't love him.

Analysis

The fire in this act creates a sense of panic for the characters and the audience; characters rush around the room gathering supplies, tensions flare, and for the first time in the play, characters speak candidly to each other. However, since the audience does not experience the fire, which takes place offstage, the stress and disjointedness that the characters display seems futile and unnecessary. Masha admits her affair with Vershinin, Andrey confronts his sisters about their treatment of Natasha, and Chebutykin drunkenly declares happiness is an illusion. The constantly ringing fire alarm warns that decisions need to be made quickly. For the sisters the symbolism suggests their futures are slipping away, and they don't have much time to waste in their chase of happiness. Unfortunately, the sisters prove themselves too weak to stand up to the forces that threaten their happiness. Olga fails to stand up to Natasha's threats of firing Anfisa. In this moment where Olga could have put Natasha firmly back "in her place," she is simply too exhausted to fight. Similarly, Irina's decline to complete hopelessness continues as she abandons her dream of finding true love in Moscow by accepting Tuzenbach's marriage proposal. For three years Irina has been talking about returning to Moscow to find her true love, but like her sisters, she too is exhausted. She accepts Tuzenbach's proposal more out of desperation for change than love.

Chebutykin shattering the clock that once belonged to the woman he loves ties together the themes of nostalgia and dissatisfaction. His lament that, "Perhaps I didn't break it; it only looks as if I broke it" might as well have been, "Perhaps I didn't lose her; it only felt as if I lost her." Indeed, later in the play when Masha asks Chebutykin whether her mother loved him back, he states, "I can't remember." Chebutykin's mental breakdown coincides with having accidentally killed a patient because he doesn't "know anything. Nobody knows anything," which suggests a sense of hopelessness. Shattering the clock, one of the last tangible connections to his lost love, similarly suggests hopelessness in nostalgia. Unlike what Vershinin suggested in the previous act, that happiness "exists in our wishes," Chebutykin doesn't believe it exists at all. The happiness of nostalgia and the happiness of hope are illusions. Similarly, Irina sobs that she's losing her education in the village: "Where has everything gone? Where is it all? Oh my God, my God! I've forgotten everything. Everything." These losses—Chebutykin's love and Irina's education—are as devastating to their characters as the loss of possessions to those in the fire. When Ferapont jokes about the Fire of 1812, it conjures images of Moscow burning. By the end of the act with Irina's acceptance of Tuzenbach's proposal and the acknowledgement of Andrey's gambling problem, it becomes even clearer the sisters will never return to Moscow. In this way their dreams have symbolically gone up in flames.

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