Three Sisters | Study Guide

Anton Chekhov

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Three Sisters | Themes


Experience, Emotion, and Perspective

Anton Chekhov's works are unusual because they contain very little action. Most of his plays, including Three Sisters, rely heavily on dialogue and silence—the things that are said and the things left unsaid—rather than on the progression of plot details. In fact most of the important action—Andrey marrying Natasha, the fire, Masha and Vershinin's affair, the duel—takes place offstage. The purpose of staging static rather than active scenes is to highlight human emotion as the motivation for action. For Chekhov the way people feel is more important than what they do; his plays demonstrate that emotions and perspective dictate the way people experience the events of their lives more than the events themselves do. Emotions rather than events motivate the characters' actions. Andrey is motivated by shame and timidity, for example, the sisters by disappointment, Vershinin by hope, Solyoni by bitterness, and Natasha by greed and perhaps by an ongoing fear of social inequity and instability. By staging emotions rather than action, Chekhov focuses on what makes us human.


All of Chekhov's works are primarily concerned with the everyday complications of life. Chekhov once said, "All I wanted was to say honestly to people: 'Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are!'" which is certainly what he did in Three Sisters. The primary emotion felt onstage is dissatisfaction. The sisters are wholly dissatisfied with their village lives, from their jobs to their marriages to their hopes for the future. At the opening of the play, Olga voices her dissatisfaction as a schoolteacher and Masha with her marriage. While Irina is hopeful that she will find love and fulfilling work, she acknowledges that their lives thus far have been disappointing: "You say that life is beautiful ... The life of us three hasn't been beautiful yet; it has been stifling us as if it was weeds."

As the play progresses, the sisters try to come to terms with their dissatisfaction, hoping to find happiness somewhere, however partial or fleeting. Olga throws herself into her work and is eventually promoted to headmistress, but she remains as unhappy and overworked as before. Masha has an affair with Vershinin, which ends in heartbreak when the battery moves. Irina decides to marry Tuzenbach despite not loving him, but Solyoni kills him in a duel. On top of that, the sisters are ousted from their home and realize they will never return to Moscow. Dissatisfaction prevails as the play closes without a single happy character. The play leaves audiences with the message that uncomplaining acceptance of one's unhappiness is simply a fact of life.


Hand in hand with the sisters' feeling of dissatisfaction is their nostalgia for their old life in Moscow. For many years the sisters are able to cope with their dissatisfaction by clinging to the hope that it will be short lived, that they will be returning to Moscow soon. Everything about Moscow is better than the village: the people are more educated, the parties livelier, the men more attractive. Never for a moment does Irina believe her true love could be in the village—he's certainly waiting to be discovered in Moscow! Back in Moscow the sisters had both parents, a vibrant social life, and the social respect of belonging to the upper class. In the village no one cares that they speak three languages, play classical instruments, or host traditional parties. Also, both their parents have died, further separating them from the life they knew, and perhaps suggesting that their longing for their old life is also longing for a time when their family was complete. By longing for the past the sisters fail to live in the moment, losing what little happiness they have, as witnessed in the decline of Masha's marriage, Irina's failed engagement, and Olga's perpetual dissatisfaction at work. They also lose their house to Natasha.

Natasha's rise to power is highly symbolic of the theme. The serfs had been emancipated in 1861, 40 years before Three Sisters was written, and the social upheaval caused by the emancipation led to greater and greater instability. Peasants were technically free, but many of them worked long hours for bad pay in distressing, dangerous conditions, and the tension this caused was felt all over Russia. Lower-class populations demanded better conditions from an elite that, much like the sisters, longed for the way life used to be. Nicholas II, who was tsar when Chekhov wrote Three Sisters, was seen as unsympathetic and ineffective. Ultimately, public dissatisfaction broke into a series of revolutions, beginning in 1905, when police killed more than 100 peaceful protestors who were marching to Nicholas's palace to ask for help with their job conditions. The conflict eventually culminated in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which ended imperial rule, put Lenin's Communist Party in power, and created what would eventually become the Soviet Union.

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