Three Sisters and the Mistake of Counting: Chexov and Bergson

Cole M. Crittenden, Princeton University

Much scholarly analysis of Chexov's Three Sisters has concentrated on two questions about the text: first, What is the role of time in the play? and second, Why can't those sisters get to Moscow? In this paper I proposes that there is one answer to both questions: the Prozorov sisters are caught in a faulty philosophical construct of time that ultimately affects space.

Chexov's penultimate play concerns itself with a family that treats time, like space, as something inherently quantifiable. Why this might be a faulty construct of the nature of time can be found in the philosophy of Henri Bergson, especially in his work Durée et simultaneité ; (translated as Time and Free Will), a work possibly known to Chexov but positively "in the air" during Chexov's final years. Bergson holds that "duration," the qualitative human experience of time, is separate from the quantitative spatial model of time on which humans collectively agree. The spatial model serves an important social function, but it does not represent "real" time nor, by extension, "real" experience.

After careful textual analysis I propose that the only "real" experience the sisters recognize is a countable one, a mistake that structures their household and governs their relationships. The past is privileged because it is finished and therefore quantifiable, something the present is not. The Prozorov sisters' preoccupation with memory (both of the past and of the present as a future past) is built on the act of quantifying, and the role of memory, like so much in the play, stems from the sisters' spatialization of time. But if the sisters treat time like space, a mistake according to Bergson's philosophy, they also erroneously assign to space certain temporal characteristics. I attempt to explain their immobility and ultimate loss of space as a necessary result of the confusion of these two categories of human experience.