Work, love, or progress – or should we just go to Moscow?

28 Apr

three sisters

Yesterday I finished reading Chekhov’s Three Sisters, inspired by the Benedict Andrews version of the play which I saw last autumn at the Young Vic. I noticed at the time that there were many references to happiness in the play, and they’re present in the English translation of the text as well.

In Act 1 the youngest of the three sisters, Irina, is seeking happiness in work. She believes that a privileged young woman like herself, who wakes at twelve, has coffee in bed, then spends two hours dressing, cannot possibly be happy.

“A man ought to work… all the purpose and meaning of his life, his ecstasies, lie in that alone.”

The sisters’ brother Andrey feels happy in Act 1 because his heart is full of love. And for Vershinin, a military man and progressivist with a miserable domestic existence, the truly happy life is something which we must strive for but which is always out of reach. Work brings happiness, but not to us.

“It seems to me that everything on earth is bound to change by degrees and is already changing before our eyes. In two or three hundred, perhaps in a thousand years — the time does not matter — a new, happy life will come. We shall have no share in that life, of course, but we’re living for it, we’re working, well, yes, and suffering for it, we’re creating it — and that alone is the purpose of our existence, and is our happiness, if you like.”

Vershinin is willing to suffer for the future happiness of others:

“…there is no happiness for us, there ought not to be and will not be. . . . We must work and work, and happiness is the portion of our remote descendants… If it’s not for me, at least it’s for the descendants of my descendants. . . .”

And he adopts the uncomfortable position of telling others that the happiness which they think they’re enjoying is illusory. When young Tuzenbakh interposes with ‘But what if I’m happy?’ Vershinin’s prompt rejoinder is, ‘You’re not.’

All three sisters, Olga, Masha and Irina, dream of moving back to Moscow.

“Go away to Moscow. Sell the house, finish with everything here,
and go to Moscow …”

For them, as for Vershinin, the happy and meaningful life which they dream of is always out of reach, always unattainable.

It isn’t a cheery play, and all these definitions of happiness are shown one way or another to be deeply flawed. When Irina does find work in the local telegraph office, she feels that it is purposeless, and without poetry.

IRINA I’ve been a telegraph clerk and now I have a job in the town council and I hate and despise every bit of the work they give me. . . . I’m already twenty-three, I’ve been working for years, my brains are drying up, I’m getting thin and old and ugly and there’s nothing, nothing, not the slightest satisfaction, and time is passing and you feel that you are moving away from a real, a beautiful life, moving farther and farther away and being drawn into the depths.

Irina’s sister Olga, a teacher, and their old nanny Anfisa are both worn out by their working lives. And the plight of the 81-year-old Anfisa illustrates one problem with pinning all your happiness on the work ethic: what happens when you can’t work any longer? Anfisa is terrified that she will be sent away from the house, and if the three women’s awful sister-in-law Natasha gets her way, she will:

NATASHA She’s not fit for work. She does nothing but sleep or sit still.
OLGA. Well, let her sit still.
NATASHA How, sit still? Why, she’s a servant. I don’t understand you, Olya. I’ve a nanny to look after the children as well as a wet nurse for baby, and we have a housemaid and a cook, what do we want that old woman for? What’s the use of her?

Love is equally unreliable as a source of happiness. Andrey’s wife Natasha has a lacklustre affair with her husband’s boss, the chair of the district council. At the same time Andrey’s sister Masha, who despises her husband Kulygin, has been falling in love with Vershinin, whose work is about to take him away from her.

MASHA. When you get happiness by snatches, by little bits, and then lose it, as I’m losing it, by degrees one grows coarse and spiteful . . . I’m boiling here inside . . . Here’s our Andrey, . . . All our hopes are shattered. It’s like thousands of people raised a huge bell, a lot of money and of labour was spent on it, and it suddenly fell and smashed. All at once, for no reason whatever. That’s just how it is with Andrey . . .

Perhaps there is a way through all this. Irina decides eventually to marry Tuzenbakh, although she doesn’t love him.

IRINA. I’ve made up my mind, since I’m not fated to be in Moscow, that so it must be. It must be destiny. …He’s a good man, it’s wonderful really how good he is. . . . And I suddenly felt as though my soul had grown wings, my heart felt so light and again I longed for work, work …

But at the end of the play Tuzenbakh is killed in a senseless duel.

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