Isolation and Tragedy: Natasha in “Three Sisters”
“Three Sisters” is Anton Chekhov’s only true tragedy, featuring a large ensemble cast of characters facing a downward succession of horrible events. Of all of the characters in the play, Natasha is the only one who seems to gain power by the end. In reality, even though Natasha gains power in her household and is rude to every other character, her story is still tragic and she suffers just as much as the other characters.
At the beginning of the play, Natasha comes from a lower class background and is very intimidated by the upper class Prozorovs, especially when the sisters mock her clothing choices. She was set to marry Protopopov, but she was in love with Andrey. She sought acceptance from his family and that they would stop making fun of her. This is evident in Act One, when she is humiliated and leaves the party and says, “I’m so embarrassed. I just don’t know what’s the matter with me; they just make fun of me all the time. I know it’s not polite to leave the table like that, but I just couldn’t stand it. I really couldn’t” (275). Her overall goal is to fit in and be accepted. When Andrey confesses his love for her, she comes a little bit closer to fulfilling this goal as she becomes part of the family, whether she is welcomed or not.
Natasha is largely defined by her relationships and interactions with other characters. Most importantly, her story revolves around her relationship with Andrey. At first, she is in love with him, and he loves her back, which leads to them getting teased by everyone else in the Prozorov household. Despite this, Natasha finds both acceptance and social mobility through Andrey. She goes from a lower class peasant to a member of one of the highest class families in their small town. As the play progresses, Andrey begins to ignore Natasha. She spends the majority of her time alone with their child, and grows very anxious about him. At the beginning of Act Two, she expresses this sentiment to Andrey and says, “Why is he so cold? Yesterday he had a fever, and today he’s cold all over… I get so worried!” (276). Andrey does not respond to this in a genuine manner, only saying, “He’s all right, Natasha” (276). This only furthers Natasha’s isolation and anxiety. She becomes overly invested in her relationship with her child, as he is all she truly has. She analyzes his every action, saying, “This morning the baby woke up and looked at me, and all of a sudden he smiled and I just know he recognized me” (276). Andrey completely ignores all of these statements, almost as if the child is not even his.
Immediately, there is a distinct separation between Natasha and Andrey now that they are married and starting a family together. Their relationship is again strained when Natasha begins her affair with Protopopov. She was initially supposed to marry Protopopov before she married Andrey, so when Andrey does not love her or pay attention to her, she turns toward Protopopov, who will surely at least be willing to pay attention to her. By Act Four, Protopopov is even at the house interacting with her while Andrey is absent. This is evident when she makes an offhand comment saying, “Little Sophie is in there with Protopopov, so tell Andrey to take care of Bobik” (317). Protopopov is helping her take care of her own children while she cannot even directly communicate with Andrey anymore. By the end of the play, Andrey and Natasha are so separated from one another that Andrey describes her by saying, “…she’s a good woman, but somewhere deep down inside her there’s something blind and vicious and mean, some kind of animal. Whatever it is, she’s not really a human being” (311).
Natasha is also defined by her relationship with Olga. Theirs is a relationship of constantly imbalanced power dynamics pushing back and forth at one another. In Act One, Olga humiliates Natasha by telling her that her belt does not match her dress. She says, “A green belt! Darling, that just isn’t done!” (273). Natasha is obviously very hurt and embarrassed by this, leading to her feeling of social isolation from the rest of the household. Later on in the play, once Natasha has married Andrey, she finds herself in a place of power in the household and turns this back in Olga during their interactions. Natasha tells Olga that having Anfisa in the house is useless, which causes an argument. Natasha exerts the fact that she is the head of the household and should have authority on the subject matter. She says, “You’re at the high school, I’m at home. Your job is teaching, mine is running the house. And if I tell you something about the servants, then I know what I’m talking about” (295). This time, instead of Olga holding the power and humiliating Natasha about her clothes, Natasha humiliates and upsets Olga. Between acts, there is a sharp shift in how Natasha is characterized. In Act One, she is extremely shy and vulnerable, but by Act Two, she begins to easily grow into her role and starts to take control of the household.
Despite those two changes, Natasha can be a powerful presence. She is not one of the main characters of the play, but she is one whose life is rich in paradox: she could be extremely cruel to characters like Olga and still be a completely sympathetic character. Through the way she talked about her children, it was obvious that she was very insecure and alone. This was most efficiently expressed through contrast in Natasha’s manner of speaking and interacting with others. For one moment she is anxious and introspective, and the next moment she is harsh and biting.
In a play full of devastating personal tragedies for almost every single character, at first analysis it seems that Natasha’s purpose is to provide contrast, as her character appears to have an upward journey while the rest of the characters’ journeys are downwards. However, this is simply not the case. Despite Natasha’s increase in power, she experiences tragedy through her insecurity, anxiety, and gradual extreme social and familial isolation.