When reading The Three Sisters by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov one is transferred, as if by magic, into a totally different world the world of the Russian province, far away in the depth of the country. This world is filled with nostalgia and elegant sadness of the epoch that has long gone. Its magnetic appeal cannot but attract the reader and make him try to imagine the white birches of the estate and the majestic waves of the wide slow river. To make this appeal more meaningful one has to look closely at the background of the author and the play. Such an investigation makes the scenes of the play come alive. Contextualization of the play can also help single out those historical and biographical factors that shaped the play as well as better understand thematic and structural unity of the play as an artistic whole.
Chekhov is one of those authors whose life intrigues the readers no less than his works and whose biographical experience enriched the works without making them subjective or sentimental. Chekhov was born on January 29, 1860, in Taganrog, a tradeful city in southwestern Russia on the Black Sea coast. He had five siblings. Chekhovs family background was strikingly different from that of his fellow-writers: the family did not belong to nobility. His grandfather on his fathers side had been a serf until he finally managed to buy himself out. His maternal grandfather traded cloth. Chekhovs father, a very strict and religious man, was a grocer. Unfortunately, he went bankrupt and chose to leave his family. Thereafter the family moved to Moscow (Kloeppel 5).
Chekhov joined his family in Moscow after he had graduated and became the bread-winner for the whole family through writing jobs. Apparently, he inherited his talents from his mother, who was said to be an excellent storyteller. Apart from writing, Anton Pavlovich pursued medical career of a physician. One of his most famous autobiographical aphorisms is this: Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress, who is dearer to me than a wife (qtd. in Kloeppel 5). Literature drew him irresistibly, but medicine nourished his writing. It gave him an abundant supply of real-life plots, characters and details, as well as ample opportunities for psychological field research. After finishing medical school, Chekhov started working as a journalist and wrote comic sketches. After he had tried his hand at creating several one-act plays, he proceeded to full-length plays, which can be considered unrivalled specimens of realist drama. Chekhov fell ill with tuberculosis and was forced to live in the country, which became an inspiration for the majority of his plays. In 1901, he married a leading actress of the Moscow Art Theatre Olga Knipper. Tragically he did not have much time to enjoy matrimonial happiness as in 1904 Anton Pavlovich died at the age of 44 (Kloeppel 5), when he was still full of energy.
Chekhovs personal circumstances provided him with a precious chance to see life of different social layers in many parts of the country: in the capital and in Moscow, in the penal colony on the Sakhalin Island and in small seaside resorts of the Crimea. This first-hand knowledge can be seen in the way Chekhov subtly juxtaposes Moscow and Prozorovs estate in the play. He shows both locations in the realistic light and at the same time turns them into symbols of two different epochs, two lifestyles, two truths.
Chekhovs profession brought him in contact with people who had stories to tell. His professional qualities, objectivity and insight, analytical mind and attention to detail shaped his unique writing manner. Many things Chekhov experienced, so to say, at first hand as a physician in hopeless back districts, as a morphine addict, as a patient suffering from tuberculosis which at the time was kin to a suspended death sentence. This rich life experience was transformed under Chekhovs pen and molded into the masterpieces of drama Ivanov, The Sea Gull, Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, among which The Three Sisters occupies one of the superior places.
Chekhov wrote The Three Sisters in 1900 and it was first performed in 1901, when it got mixed reviews and inspired heated discussions in the press. At the time decadence and symbolism dominated the scene. But the author rejected their mysticism. As a physician and a journalist he was more inclined to value impartiality and attention to detail of naturalism: the writer must be as objective as a chemist (qtd. in Ehre 7). Chekhov was also close to realism in his creative principles, he believed that art should serve a higher purpose. But his refusal to be straightforward, didactic and obtrusive in his aesthetics set him apart from his fellow-writers, realists, as well. In a letter to Aleksey Suvorin, Russian journalist, theater critic, and publisher, Chekhov wrote You are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct posing of a question (qtd. in Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov). He believed that only the second was obligatory for an artist. This is what makes The Three Sisters such a powerful play. After closing the book or leaving the theatre one keeps pondering over the questions that the dramatist has asked. How does our social status affect the way we see the world and our idea of happiness? In what way do education and cultural sophistication make people different from the others? How does our vision of the past shape who we are and who we will become? What is love and how does it change us? How does money transform people? What is the role of work in a society and personal development of an individual? Is there a higher purpose of our lives? These questions introduce the key themes of the play: inability to act and frustration; memory, nostalgia and reality; freedom, social and class inequality; differences between the generations and the passage of time, etc. Among them the influence of social status upon personality seems to be the major theme. It works like a perpetuum mobile of thought. When answers are not given and no final judgments are offered by the author, we keep returning to the characters of the play and their intertwined destinies, trying to draw our own conclusions.
In the play the themes are introduced in the first place through the subtle plot which, in contrast with the Shakespearean drama, is built on inaction instead of action. The conflict is based rather on psychological revelation than on the big deeds. If the characters had acted in the usual sense the play would not have been written at all. Thus, their inaction is what matters. Showing his characters suspended in this immobilized state Chekhov slowly and carefully reveals their true nature. Howard Moss in his enlightening paper Three Sisters uses a vivid metaphor to elucidate the peculiar character of the plays plot: In Three Sisters it might be compared to the drip of a faucet in a water basin; a continuous process wears away the enamel of facade (Moss 525). This slow and gradual piling up of tension is more powerful than deus ex machina devices: it allows the recipient play into the atmosphere of the house, get acquainted with the characters almost personally, start living their lives and dreaming their dreams dreams of peaceful happiness with Olga, career and distinction with Andrei, passionate love with Masha, activism and vocation with Irina.
In his play Chekhov offers a bird-eye view of the Prozorov family within four years of their life. Having moved from Moscow to a small provincial town, the family feels extremely unhappy and disappointed in this new lifestyle. They strive to go back to the city with its vibrant cultural and social atmosphere, but no move is made to achieve this aim. The setting of the play is Irinas birthday, which tragically coincides with the one-year anniversary of their fathers death. All the young women feel lost in a way. The oldest sister, Olga, is tired of being single and having to work long hours as a teacher and to endure all the hardships and stress of her profession. Masha is frustrated by her married life: when she got married she was a young girl and highly respected her husband as a teacher, an educated and intelligent person. But now she does not love him anymore, having got used to his grunge attitude and mediocrity. Andrei aspires to become a professor, but having fallen in love with a local girl Natasha, marries, settles down and starts storing up bitterness. His wife Natasha, who at first seemed a simple and unassuming young woman, gives birth to two children, takes over the house and drives the sisters out one by one. Having lost all of his illusions, Andrei starts gambling and gets into a debt which forces him to mortgages the house without his sisters consent. The sisters have no choice but to live ordinary routine lives of work and marriage. Masha falls in love with Alexander Ignateyevitch Vershinin, lieutenant-colonel in charge of a battery, and has an illicit affair with him, but as the battery leaves the town, she stays behind, lonely and brokenhearted. Irina, who has never loved in her whole life, decides to marry Nicolai Lvovitch Tuzenbach, baron, lieutenant in the army, and leave for Moscow, but as the wedding day approaches, he is killed in a duel with captain Vassili Vassilevitch Soleni, Irinas suitor. Suspended between their nostalgia for the past and high hopes for the future, the sisters suffer from their own inability to make choices. Finally, they have to face the reality and reconcile with it, though it turns out to be very far from what they have been dreaming about.
Obviously, the play includes many bright characters and all of them have a story to tell. But the plot is never confusing or misleading, being kept together by a clear, logical and elegant dramatic arc of the play: Act 1 - increased tempo and presentation of all the characters in the setting; Act 2 - lyrical meditations, rising action and preparation for the climax; Act 3 - the climax; Act 4 - falling action and denouement. The device that helps unite the parts of the play is the rhythm of interchanging memories and sketches of the present life of the family. Constant references to the past make the sisters life in Moscow something tangible, sometimes even more real than the life they are actually living, which rather resembles sleep-walking. Finally, the sense of unity is achieved through the introduction of certain concepts which have a symbolic function apart from the realistic one. For example, the big family clock symbolizes the inevitable passage of time.
Some of these symbols are closely connected with the setting which plays in The Three Sisters a very important role, almost becoming an independent character. The imaginary provincial town, where the play is set, seems to be quite similar to Taganrog, where Chekhov was born. It is a small mercantile town. The nature surrounding it is magnificent and awe-inspiring. But the town itself cannot boast active social and cultural life. It symbolizes the depth of the country with its inherent duality. It is seen at the same time as the home to the wide and mighty Russian soul, embodied in the beautiful birches and the wide river, and to the narrow-mindedness, vulgarity, lack of education. Moscow, the sisters dream destination, with its whirlpool of events and initiatives, is a symbol of culture and sophistication, and simultaneously it embodies idle, superficial and empty life the nobility was used to living. These two locations are connected through the image of a skein of cranes in the sky. They are flying wherever their nature is calling them. They inspire the sisters with so much sadness and longing because, unlike the young women themselves, the cranes do not reflect and doubt, they act and find their fulfil...
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