Three Sisters | Study Guide

Anton Chekhov

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Anton Chekhov | Biography


Anton Chekhov was born January 29, 1860, in the coastal town of Taganrog on the Sea of Azov. He was the third of six children born to a gentle mother and cruel father. Like many of the characters he would later create, Chekhov had personal experience with money worries: Chekhov's family background was filled with financial struggles. His grandfather was a serf, a poor peasant worker legally bound to a landowner; while the serfs were technically emancipated in 1861, they remained part of the lowest class in Russia. Chekhov's father, whom Chekhov remembered as hypocritically pious and physically abusive, was a grocer with a lifetime of economic difficulties. Because of his father's financial failures, by 1876 the Chekhovs moved to Moscow—all but 16-year-old Anton, that is: he stayed behind in Taganrog to finish school.

In 1879 Chekhov joined his family in Moscow and enrolled in medical school. His father was no better at earning money in Moscow than he had been in their hometown, so Chekhov quickly became the family's breadwinner. He earned money by writing and selling comic sketches, short humorous stories and portraits of Russian life that he published, often under an assumed name, in popular magazines. Chekov's comic sketches became hugely successful.

The 1880s was a full decade for Chekhov as he embarked on dual careers. In 1884 he graduated from medical school and began work as a doctor. He continued writing and by 1886 he was publishing more serious literary works under his own name, including his first play, Ivanov (1887). The publication in 1888 of his story "The Steppe," about a young boy in the Russian countryside, was a turning point in establishing his literary career. He won a major literary prize and gained fame as an author. Unfortunately the 1880s also marked the beginning of Chekhov's physical decline. In 1884 he first coughed up blood, a sign of tuberculosis, a disease that would eventually kill him two decades later.

Although Chekhov continued his medical practice, he was increasingly drawn into the literary world. Flare-ups of his disease forced him into a semiretired life in 1887, leaving his estate south of Moscow for the mild climate of Yalta. There his literary production flourished. During the 1890s Chekhov wrote the works that would earn him the reputation of being a master of the modern short story. During this period Chekhov also wrote the plays, The Seagull (1896) and Uncle Vanya (1897). Although his health continued to worsen, his literary ability only grew, and his two final, most celebrated dramatic works were written near the end of his life. Three Sisters was staged by the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) in 1901. His most beloved play, The Cherry Orchard, was finished and performed six months before he died.

Chekhov's plays influenced generations of playwrights. Possibly due to the scientific perspective he adopted as a doctor, Chekhov strove to present characters and stories without judgment or sentimentality. In his plays natural dialogue and realistic emotions frame issues of personal tragedy and class transition. By the 1920s Chekhov had won fame outside Russia as a major force on the British stage.

While in Germany convalescing with his wife, actress Olga Knipper, who played leading female roles in his plays, Chekhov died on July 14 or 15, 1904.

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