Three Sisters | Study Guide

Anton Chekhov

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Three Sisters | Symbols



Clocks in Three Sisters symbolize the cruel passage of time. Each day, month, and year that passes adds to the sisters' suffering because they remain stagnant. They are no closer to achieving their dreams of returning to Moscow, discovering love, or working toward happiness. Social constraints of the time ensure that unmarried Olga will remain a spinster despite being only in her late twenties, Masha will remain in an unhappy marriage, and, now that Tuzenbach is dead, Irina will likely join Olga in village spinsterhood. While time has moved on, the sisters end the play much as they began it. Chebutykin recognizes that happiness is an illusion of the past, which is why in Act 3 he smashes the clock, which once belonged to the woman he loved, lamenting, "To smithereens!" In this moment Chebutykin seems not to be talking about the clock but the hope for happiness.

The Samovar

The expensive silver samovar Chebutykin presents Irina on her name-day in Act 1 symbolizes the family's delusions of grandeur. While Captain Prozorov had been alive, the family enjoyed an upper-class life including fine education, fancy parties, and social respect. Now that the captain has died, the sisters cling to their existence by working long hours—although it doesn't save their house, in the end—and posturing upper-class sociability through their parties, which all end up flopping. The sisters can't admit to themselves that their comparatively elite position gives them no efficacy or mobility while Natasha, a common village girl, usurps their power. When Irina receives the samovar, the sisters are both delighted and embarrassed: "A samovar! That's awful!" They appreciate the fine gift, but recognize it no longer has a place in their lives. In its light, so to speak, the shabbiness of their country life is even clearer. Nevertheless, the samovar can still be seen in Act 4, despite the family's financial ruin, suggesting the sisters cling to the illusion that the samovar will once again find a place in their home.


Moscow symbolizes unfulfilled desire. It is the only longing the sisters overtly state: "To go away to Moscow. To sell the house, leave all and go to Moscow." However, the longing is actually for other things—love, social respect, appreciation of art, etc. The sisters' lives were easier in Moscow, so they assume they simply need to return for their problems to disappear. But as Vershinin suggests, their unfulfilled desires will remain regardless of where they live: "When you go to live in Moscow you'll not notice it, in just the same way." Therefore, at the end of the play when Olga resigns herself to her headmistress work, Masha returns to her unhappy marriage, and Irina's fiancé has been killed, the sisters admit they will never return to Moscow. This sad admission actually symbolizes their realization that they will never be happy.

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