A year after the death of their father, an army officer, the Moscow-bred sisters Prosorov--Olga, Masha and Irina--are finding life drab and increasingly hopeless in a Russian provincial town. Only the proximity of a nearby artillery post and the company of its officers make their existence bearable.
Olga, the eldest, twenty-eight, is a teacher at the high school; she finds her work hateful, and herself already aging and tired, her dream of a happy marriage fading; she is sustained solely by the hope of selling the house and returning to Moscow. Masha, little more than twenty, is married to Kuligan, a teacher of far more years who has not lived up to the stature her school-girl mind had given him. For her there is no hope of Moscow; she only whistles softly to herself as her sisters make their plans. Irina, at twenty, dreams of finding happiness and love in Moscow. A brother, Andrey, a scholar, is in love with Natasha, twenty-eight, an overdressed villager who affects shyness and humility; his sisters find it hard to believe that he will marry her.
On Irina's birthday, the callers include Chebutikin, sixty, an army doctor who once loved the sisters' mother; Baron Tuzenbach, thirty, a lieutenant in love with Irina; brooding Captain Soleni, and a newcomer, Vershinin, forty-two, commander of the post. Vershinin has two daughters and a second wife who frequently threatens suicide to annoy him. A birthday cake is sent by Protopopov, head of the District Council. The sisters hope Protopopov will marry Natasha, but Andrey proposes to her and she accepts him.
With the marriage of Natasha and Andrey and the birth of a child, Bobby, the lot of the sisters becomes even more unhappy. Natasha, dropping her humility, dominates the sisters, her husband and the servants. She takes the room of Irina, who now works at the telegraph office, for the child; Irina must share Olga's room.
Vershinin, whose wife is endlessly quarrelsome, and the unhappy Masha, bored by her husband and his colleagues, are drawn together. One day Vershinin tells her of his love for her. She at first protests, then in resignation answers: "Go on, it's all the same to me." They are interrupted by Tuzenbach and Irina. The Baron has resigned his post to seek some satisfying work in civil life, and Irina, finding the telegraph office dull, is still obsessed with her hope of discovering happiness in Moscow. She is worried, too, because Andrey, frustrated in his plans for distinguished scholarship and now disappointed in Natasha, is gambling and losing heavily.
A gay evening with guests and entertainers has been planned, but Natasha compels Andrey to cancel the invitations on the pretext that liggle Bobby is ill. Soleni returns to confess his love to Irina. Rebuffed, he swears that he will kill any rival. Natasha receives a message from Protopopov inviting her to take a drive with him in his troika, and she laughingly accepts. "How funny these men are," she says.
At two o'clock in the morning, the household is awakened by a fire in the village. Refugees come to the Prosorov home for shelter. Natasha, abusing old Anfisa, the nurse, declares that she is now mistress of the household: Anfisa must go, and Olga and Irina must move downstairs. Old Chebutikin is drunk; by his fault a woman patient has died. Soleni enters, resentful at Irina's friendship with the Baron, and Vershinin brings a rumor that the battery is to be moved from the village.
Masha, quarreling with Kuligan, discloses that Andrey has mortgaged the house--in which the sisters share ownership--to pay his gambling debts, and that Natasha has the remainder of the money he has borrowed. Irina weeps--in disappointment at the failure of the brother from whom so much had been expected, and at her own frustration. She is now working in the town council offices, but she is no happier; she realizes at last that she will never return to Moscow. She cries: "I've grown thinner, plainer, older ... and time goes and it seems all the while as if I am going away from the real, the beautiful life, further and further away down some precipice." Olga urges that she compromise and accept the plain Baron.
Masha confesses that she is in love with Vershinin: "It is all awful.... How are we going to live through our lives, what is to become of us?... My dear ones, my sisters ... I've confessed, now I shall keep silence ... Like the lunatics in Gogol's story, I'm going to be silent ... silent ..."
Andrey, finding his sisters together, sulkily confesses to the mortgage of the house. He berates them for their disapproval of his wife, "a beautiful and honest creature, straight and honorable." He insists that they respect her, even in spite of her affair with Protopopov, and declares he is proud in his place as a mere member of the District Council. Then he weeps: "My dear, dear sisters, don't believe me, don't believe me..."
The night ends with Irina's decision revealed to Olga: "I esteem, I highly value the Baron, he's a splendid man! I'll marry him ... only let's go to Moscow! I implore you, let's go! There's nothing better than Moscow on earth! Let's go, Olga, let's go!"
Soon the rumor that the battery is to be removed is confirmed--it has been ordered to Poland. Farewells are being said at the Prosorov home. Irina is to be married tomorrow to the Baron; he has work and she is happy in having been accepted for a teacher's position. She tells Kuligin: "If I can't live in Moscow, then it must come to this.... It's all the will of God." Olga is now head-mistress of her school and is living there with old Anfisa. Vershinin kisses the sobbing Masha farewell, leaving her to the dull Kuligin.
Old Chebutikin comes to tell Irina that the Baron has been killed in the duel with Soleni, and the three sisters huddle together in grief. Says Masha: "They are leaving us ... we remain alone, to begin our life over again. We must live ... we must live ..."
Irina, her head on Olga's bosom, cries: "There will come a time when everybody will know why, for what purpose, there is all this suffering. But now we must live ... we must work, just work! Tomorrow, I'll go away alone, and I'll teach and give my whole life to those who, perhaps, need it."
Olga reflects, as the military bands are heard playing in farewell: "The bands are playing so gaily, so bravely, and one does so want to live!... Time will pass on, and we shall depart forever ... but our sufferings will turn into joy for those who shall life after us ... Oh, dear sister, our life is not yet at an end. Let us live ... It seems that in a little while we shall know why we are living, why we are suffering ..."
The music fades, the smiling Kuligin brings out Masha's coat, and Andrey wheels out Bobby in a perambulator. Old Chebutikin sings softly: "Tara ... ra-boom-deay." Reading his paper, he reflects: "It's all the same! It's all the same!"
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