Three Sisters | Study Guide

Anton Chekhov

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Three Sisters | Act 4 | Summary



A year later the soldiers arrive at the Prozorov house to say goodbye to the family. Natasha has had another baby, a girl, with Protopopov rumored to be the father. Olga has been promoted to headmistress of her school and works even longer hours than before. Irina has left her job at the telegraph station and works as a teacher in Olga's school. As they say goodbye, everyone, the family and the soldiers, feels emotional. Tension brews as Chebutykin reveals that Solyoni has challenged Tuzenbach to a duel, which Tuzenbach plans to keep secret from Irina despite the fact that they are to be married the next day. When Irina enters the scene, she feels melancholy, as "everything seems to frighten [her] today." Kulygin, on the other hand, is filled with nervous excitement. He can't wait for the battery to leave so he can have his wife back.

Masha and Chebutykin discuss happiness. She wants to know whether her mother loved Chebutykin as much as he loved her, but he can't remember. Masha says when one "takes your happiness in little bits, in snatches" you become bitter and cold, as she now feels. Andrey laments that the village will become even barer and more boring than before once the battery is gone. He can't stand the idea of living alone with his wife in the big house, even though he still loves her, "or, at any rate, used to love her." Solyoni enters the scene briefly, rubbing scented oil on his hands, to collect Chebutykin as witness to the duel. Tuzenbach says goodbye to Irina, who still doesn't know about the impending duel, professing his long love of her. Irina doesn't return his sentiment. She speaks kindly but admits she will never love him, comparing her heart to "an expensive piano which is locked and the key lost."

Andrey tries to be hopeful about the future, despite the fact that he has mortgaged the family home to pay his gambling debts, and Natasha has managed to gain control of the money he borrowed. Ferapont brings news that a snowstorm in either Petersburg or Moscow killed 2,000 people. Andrey breaks into tears, and Natasha shouts down from the bedroom for him to quiet down. Vershinin, Olga, and Anfisa arrive. Olga has moved closer to the schoolhouse, taking Anfisa with her, and the old woman is delighted with her new position. Vershinin distractedly looks around the garden for Masha before it is time to leave. When Masha arrives, their goodbye is heartbreaking, and she must be pulled, weeping, from his arms. Kulygin defends her when Olga tries to calm her down saying, "Never mind, let her cry ... let's begin to live again as we used to, and not by a single word." Sobbing, Masha swears she'll never enter the house again. Natasha comes downstairs and tactlessly begins listing off everything she plans to change in the house once the sisters are gone. Chebutykin arrives and announces that Tuzenbach has been killed in the duel. Saddened, Irina vows to dedicate herself to her work. Olga comforts Irina by saying it won't be long until they are all forgotten, "but our sufferings will turn into joy for those who will live after us." The play ends with Olga's emotional lament, "If only we could know, if only we could know!"


The fourth act is a complete inversion of the first. Act 1 staged a party coming together, Act 4 a party disbanding. Act 1 was staged in spring (the rebirth of nature), Act 4 is staged in autumn (nature's death). In Act 1 characters are filled with hope; in Act 4 they are completely hopeless. The changing weather, which adds to the closing act's depressing mood, also serves to remind the audience of the passage of time and the seemingly unstoppable forces that dictate life in the same way the changing seasons dictate the weather.

Tuzenbach's death comes as a surprise to everyone, including Irina. In Act 2 Tuzenbach and Vershinin argued about the possibility of happiness. Vershinin suggests the impossibility of happiness: "there is no happiness for us, ... there should not and cannot be." Vershinin has lived a difficult life, moving with the army, living alongside his mother-in-law and daughters, married to an insufferable wife; he has thus given in to his disappointment. Tuzenbach, on the other hand, conjures images of migrating birds flying away from their suffering (the snow) to bask in the sun elsewhere. The image parallels the sisters' dream of "migrating" away from their unhappiness in the village and returning to Moscow. He believes in happiness, however trivial or fleeting. In this way Tuzenbach lives elevated from the rest of the characters whose dreams become disillusionment. Tuzenbach knows Irina doesn't love him, yet he speaks romantically of his feelings for her and their future together. He can be read as living in denial, refusing to acknowledge his actual unhappiness. However, it is also possible that he has learned a truth that eludes everyone else in the play: happiness is dependent on perspective, not circumstance, whether the circumstance is living an exciting urban life or being loved in return, so it is enough that he loves Irina, even if she doesn't reciprocate. He keeps the duel a secret from Irina, and in his final words to her before his death, asks for a domestic favor—a cup of coffee—rather than acknowledging what may be a goodbye. When Tuzenbach is killed, the audience questions whether it is punishment for having hope. When one has hope, fate has something to snatch away. By plodding meaninglessly through life as Vershinin, Olga, Andrey, and even Masha have done, one cannot be disappointed.

Each of the play's acts has brought the sisters closer toward hopelessness, and by the end of the play, they are completely disillusioned. Whatever hope of happiness they clung to has disappeared. Olga has no choice but to dedicate herself fully to work. Masha is pulled weeping from Vershinin's arms as he moves away. Irina's fiancé, whom she didn't even love anyway, has died. Even Andrey has been ousted from his home by Natasha while her lover, Protopopov, sits inside. Everyone is resigned to unhappiness. Irina, like Olga and Vershinin, now knows happiness is an illusion; all she can do is work. Only Kulygin clings to a sense of hopeful nostalgia. He hopes that now the battery has moved away, "everything will go on as in the old days." He takes Masha back without question, although he clearly knows of her affair with Vershinin. Kulygin's hope, like everyone else's, is nothing more than an illusion to mask suffering. No one even questions the suffering anymore, or wishes it would stop. They simply accept it as emotionlessly as Irina accepts Tuzenbach's fate, and the realization they will never return to Moscow. As for the distant hope that their suffering may make the world a better place for future generations, Olga's cry, "If only we could know!" ends the play, but Chebutykin's previous line, "It's all the same," reveals the play's true message.

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