Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Anton Chekhov - THREE SISTERS

There’s an old saying that the grass is always greener on the other side. Of course it’s not true, but most of us find that out fairly early in life. Then we either learn to accept it and get on with life – or we become bitter, kind of like the three sisters in Chekhov’s play. All three are bitter, but for different reasons, and every bitterness has its own distinct flavor.

Olga, for example, wants a decent man and she thinks she knows where to find him. She says, “One single thought grows stronger and stronger…to leave for Moscow. To sell the house, finish with everything here and – to Moscow…I’d love my husband.” She dreams of Moscow and how things would be better if only they could move back there. Her brother Andrey also sees Moscow as the solution to all their problems: “in Moscow…you don’t know anybody and nobody knows you, and at the same time you don’t feel a stranger. Whereas here you know everybody and everybody knows you, but you’re a stranger…A stranger and lonely…” However, the world-weary family friend, Vershinin, knows better: “…you won’t notice Moscow when you’re living there. We have no happiness and it doesn’t exist, we only desire it.”

Ok, forget Moscow. Maybe our happiness lies in our work instead. A second sister, Irina, makes the observation that: “A man, whoever he may be, must work, must toil by the sweat of his brow, and in that alone lies the sense and the goal of our life, its happiness, its joys.” Tuzenbakh, another family friend, agrees wholeheartedly: “God, how I understand the longing for work! I’ve never worked in my life, not once…I was protected from work…a mighty, healthy storm is rising, it’s coming, it’s already near, and soon it will blow sloth, indifference, contempt for work, this festering boredom right out of our society…everyone will work. Everyone!” Fine speech, but nothing much comes of that either. None of the characters in the play likes real work. They just imagine how wonderful it must be to have meaningful work.

Well, then how about a cultivated life of elegant pleasure? This seems to be what the third sister, Masha, has in mind when she confesses that “…among civilians generally there are so many coarse, unpleasant, uneducated people. Coarseness upsets and offends me, I suffer when I see a man without refinement, without gentleness and courtesy.” So maybe we can find happiness that way? Vershinin seems to think it might be possible, although not in our lifetime: “It goes without saying that you are not going to overcome the mass of ignorance surrounding you (but)…In two or three hundred years life on earth will be inexpressibly beautiful and amazing…Man needs that kind of life…” But Tuzenbakh is having none of that, and he responds that “…life will remain the same, difficult and full of secrets and happy. And in a thousand years man will still sigh, ‘Ah, life is hard!’ – and at the same time he will, as now, be afraid and not want to die…Life will remain the same as ever not just in two hundred or three hundred years but even in a million; life doesn’t change…”

Life doesn’t change? So where does that leave us? Right where we started at the beginning of the play – stuck out in the country dreaming how much better life would be in the city (
Moscow). Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn’t. I think Chekhov’s point is that it wouldn’t be any better. No matter where these three sisters lived, their lives would go on pretty much the same. Is that true for us too? Ask yourself: do I daydream about 1) having a bigger and better house, 2) being happier in a new job, and/or 3) somehow becoming more educated and sophisticated? Of course, under the right circumstances all three of these are worthy goals. It’s a little seedling of the great American Dream so many of us work so hard to try to achieve. But Chekhov seems to be warning us, if you think the grass will be any greener once you get there – forget it.

-- RDP


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