Chekhov’s play, The Three Sisters, is about the Russian privileged class, which was going through a time of upheaval.
The play is set during a time that Russia was looking for meaning in the world. During the play, the three sisters – Olga, Masha and Irina – represent this upper class of Russians, and are considered cultured and refined women. They are in their 20s. They were raised in urban Moscow and have made their home in a small town for 11 years. Their father is now dead and their expected return home to Moscow becomes a symbol of a good life for the young women. But the redundancy of their everyday lives starts taking a toll. In this essay, I will discuss a comment made in 1978 by a reviewer from The Guardian, who said Three Sisters is about “the sense of people trapped in place and time, desperate with large hopes which will never be realized.” The play depicts a strong characterization of what can happen to naïve, privileged young people when the harsh realities of life take hold.
Each of the sisters hates her life in the small town of the province in Russia. They had been raised in Moscow, where they lived in the glitz and glamour of a privileged lifestyle. And, like so many privileged young people who stray away from home in their youth, these women suffered because of the lack of the various luxuries they were used to. They were certainly out of their element outside of Moscow, and as they struggled to find their place in the small town, they could only dig themselves deeper into despair.
The play reveals a sense of gloom, and this is a communication of the three sisters being stuck in place and time. The young women want to return to the former lifestyle they had, but it is exceedingly difficult due to their monetary position. There are several aspects to the gloom that is represented in the play. The largest impact on the feel is the time in which the play is set. The early 1900s is an age that is relatively dull. Furthermore, the time period in Russia is also dull and as the country faced with the challenge of finding its identity. This is also a struggle that the three sisters are facing, not only because of their young age, but also because they are living a lifestyle away from the comfort of home. They are searching for an identity and they are a metaphor for their country and time period, (Deskin, par. 3).
The dialogue included in the play is also rather dull. There is no vibrant or witty language used, and this helps maintain the tone. Because of the fact that there is a lack of sharpness to the dialogue, there is nothing solid on which to characterize the play’s ensemble. Without crafty language, the characters aren’t presented in a light that would indicate they are intelligent, or not intelligent, for example. But what is communicated is the fact that the three sisters are crying out for hope for their future. The sisters are extremely preoccupied with the lives that they used to have. The oldest of the three sisters, Olga, comments on the fact that Irina is very young and beautiful, but she views her own life as a high school teacher not having the opportunity for her to enjoy her youth. Another sister, Masha, seems to be relatively despondent, but then she later wakes up from her poor mood when guests come to visit. The guests are Russian military officers, as well as family and friends of the girls’ father, who was a general, but is now dead. Their father died the year prior, (Deskin, par 5).
The conversation that ensues is an indication of the lack of identity that is taking place throughout the play. For example, one of the officers, Baron Tuzenback, talks about the future. He talks about a cloud that is possessing the country. This cloud is a representation of what he calls the snobbery, laziness and prejudice against work. Those attitudes are a danger to the foundations that build the society. Another one of the officers, Vershmin, is cautious about the future of all people on the planet. “Several times in the play he philosophizes about an evolution of the human spirit to the point, say in two or three centuries, where man will be set free from the chains of suffering and will truly know what it means to be happy,” (Deskin, par. 4). These conversations are a representation of the conflicts that the three sisters are going through.
The sisters’ brother, Andrei, is considered too be the black sheep in the family and he is well aware of this. He has a college education, but he isn’t able to escape the mediocrity of the life that he is living. He is frustrated with his work life and romantic life. He is engaged to a woman named Natasha who is extremely selfish. She moves in with the family and this leads to her becoming the seam in the household. She never really seems to fit in, and this shows same kind of crisis that the girls are going through, with the world around them not fitting in with how they want to live their lives.
Meanwhile, the play takes on a different subplot, which strengthens the inconsistency theme that is throughout the play and in the girls’ lives – the Baron is trying to seduce Irina. He does this, but is not very successful at all. At the same time the officer Solyony is sitting idle. Vershim is trying to seduce Masha, who is actually married. Olga then needs to offer a consolation to her family, but she is struggling to maintain her mental health as she struggles to find her identity, and cope with the fact that she is living a life that she doesn’t want. More mental problems are evident in a neurotic doctor. All these characters must cope with living with each other, and this interaction reaches a boiling point during the play. That tension is similar to what the women feel about their lives.
The challenging part is that there isn’t a single character who can really identify with who they are. They all have desires, but they are unsuccessful at attaining any of those wishes. They don’t really explain their feelings to each other, and this is perhaps because they don’t really have a strong grasp on what those feelings actually are. The time that they are seemingly trapped in eventually manifests on the fact that they are actually travelling through time quite fast, and the girls’ lives are passing by them. And as this time passes, so too does the hope that change will actually come. This is a painful realization as the three sisters continue to struggle with their daily lives. There is little hope by the final act that the three sisters will have a new beginning. “Day becomes night; the light of hope and the promise of a new beginning ebbs away and reappears only for the final act, just in time for the characters to come to their senses about their relationships and take measures to remedy them with calculating precision, unable to recover emotions that have long since been lost,” (Deskin, par. 9).
The sisters are desperately seeking some kind of renewal of their lives, and this renewal’s source is from outside of their daily routine. However, they continue to find themselves in the same small town. In this town there are always the same people and the same lack of opportunities for them. They continue to want to move back to Moscow, but that dream never becomes a reality to them. The town, and the lifestyle that comes along with it, is like an anchor to the girls, and it is holding them down, preventing them from living the life that they truly want to live. There is the feeling in the play that none of the characters will ever find themselves or achieve what they desire. Olga, who is perhaps the most intelligent of the three sisters, makes the remark that there is nothing else that you can do in life other than keeping on living. This reveals that the character has lost all hope for a life that she once had, one that is in Moscow and full of the types of luxuries that the three sisters once enjoyed. Their eventual complacency with the life that they are living replaces their hate towards it. They have learned to accept that they are now living lives they don’t want to live, but they have to accept their misery and carry on.
However, one could take a different interpretation of Olga’s words, which come near the end of the play. She seems to be slightly optimistic about the future, despite having failed for so long to achieve her goal of returning to Moscow.
“The bands are playing so gaily, so bravely, and one does so want to live! Oh, my
God! Time will pass on, and we shall depart for ever, we shall be forgotten; they
will forget our faces, voices, and even how many there were of us, but our sufferings
will turn into joy for those who will live after us, happiness and peace will reign on
earth, and people will remember with kindly words, and bless those who are
living now,” (Chekhov, p. 62).
So even though she doesn’t think there will be a lot of happiness for her and her two sisters, she is still hoping that some good will come out of their suffering. She believes that the world has better days ahead, but that happiness is not within the lifetime of the three sisters. But the suffering that the sisters are undergoing is with a reason, Olga points out. She mentions several times, “If only we could know, if only we could know!,” (Chekhov, p. 63).
The girls certainly seem powerless to control the circumstances that they are in. And that theme of not being able to control one’s own destiny is a key theme, not only for the sisters, but for the other characters as well, and for Russia as a nation. Some might say that even the entire world is subject to not being controllable. Everyone’s lives, the story would have the reader believe, is miserable, and it is as though the task of living is a test by God. The almighty force can’t be tampered with, as everyone is powerless. This is what the girls come to think, is that they aren’t in control of their lives and they are instead made to suffer in the small town. However, the sisters don’t really make a good enough effort to find their way back to Moscow. They are fully capable of working hard and saving money to travel back to Moscow. However, it is very difficult for the girls because they were used to having help from their parents, but that is no longer possible because their father is now dead.
However, near the beginning of the play, Irina seems more optimistic about the sisters’ futures. “The life of us three hasn’t been beautiful yet; it has been stifling us as if it was weeds… ,” (p. 17). The young women are clearly suffering throughout the play, but they come to learn that they are trapped in a way that they can’t create their future. They feel like they deserve to have a future that is similar to what their past was in Moscow, but they lack the life skills that could help them move into the right direction.
The sisters have been sheltered for so long, and now they are forced to survive. The women could eventually learn what it takes to get their lives onto the track where they are able to get their former life back. While they seem to be trapped in the past, they need to live in the present, and develop the skills that will make them more capable of living the type of life that they used to have. This theme of being trapped in place and time is a burden to their lives. The women are ill-equipped to handle the challenges that are posed to them. However, they will eventually grow wiser and they may be able to find a way to achieve the type of life that they wish they had, though that isn’t communicated in the play.
Chekhov, Anton. “The Three Sisters.” Royalty Free Plays. 2009. Web. 28 March 2013
Deskin, Scott. “Time wears down all in Chekhob’s despondent Sisters.” Massachusetts Institute
of Technology. 17, March. 1995. Web. 26 March 2013.