Space and Self in Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters

Yanina Arnold, University of South Carolina

This paper examines the interplay between the imaginary spaces and the identities of the characters in Anton Chekhov’s play Three Sisters. Although the characters of this play live in the same anonymous garrison town, and their “narrated” lives occur in or near the same house, it can be argued that they “inhabit” different imaginary spaces. In contrast with Andrey’s wife Natasha whose prosaic domesticity is rooted in the center of her imaginary space, other Prozorovs (Olga, Masha, Irina, and Andrei) perceive their lives as existing in the margin of their imaginary space. Within their imaginary universe, Moscow is the center and a place closely associated with their pasts (their childhoods and the death of their mother) and their imaginary futures.

The goal of my paper is to illustrate that Chekhov’s play Three Sisters narrates the identities of the characters—via spatial references that saturate the dialogues and monologues of the play. After contextualizing Chekhov’s space within his writing and the boundaries of his Russia, I proceed to the imagined, internalized aspects of spatiality in Three Sisters. In the main body of the paper, I examine the identities of the characters via their spaces, specifically focusing on the spatiality that 1) either is or is not perceived by the characters as permanent, and 2) either does or does not satisfy the cultural “hunger” of the characters. The first part (on the perception of one’s place as permanent or temporary) examines the relationship between the characters and their place of habitat (via the lens of nostalgia, explored by Svetlana Boym in her study The Future of Nostalgia). While Natasha is rooted in her place, the Prozorovs seem to preserve—even in their seemingly settled life—the overpowering feeling of transience: they long for Moscow, and they do not give up their hopes till the fourth act of the play. The second part examines whether the characters experience their cultural space as wholesome and fulfilling, or whether it creates for them a feeling of a “double horizon.” I use the term “double horizon” to indicate a subjective feeling of outgrowing one’s cultural space (the notion of “cultural space” belongs to Dmitry Likhachev, see his Reflections on Russia). The Prozorov sisters and Andrei clearly experience the phenomenon of a double horizon: they live within a space where their talents (the ability to speak foreign languages and to play the piano) do not have any practical application, and these abilities make them desire to go “beyond” their immediate cultural horizon.