The Cherry Orchard (Vishnyovy Sad: Komediya v chetyryokh deystriyakh (four-act), first produced in Moscow at the Moscow Art Theater, January 17, 1900; translation and introduction by Max S. Mandell published as The Cherry Garden: A Comedy in Four Acts, C. G. Whaples, 1908; translation by Covan published as The Cherry Orchard: A Comedy in Four Acts, Brentanos, 1922;) an intended tragedy by Anton CHEKHOV (1860-1904), the celebrated Russian short story writer and playwright, is a comedy. It brings the story of a bankrupt family who by nheritence the owner of the largest cherry garden in the country. Among all impracticable persons standing the Ranevskayas- Lubov and Gayev, the only man that comes up with a practical piece of advice to save the family from bankrupcy is Lopakhin. Though a descendant of a serf in this family, he has established himself as a flourishing businessman. But there is none to listen to his advice. Trofimov, the tutor of Lubov’s deceased son comes over there to greet the family coming back from France. He is a studious fellow still at the university. Through his long scholastic deliberation, especially to Anya, Lubov’s daughter, Chekhov focuses new ideas that in some way reflects the new ideological vistas seemingly the clarion call of the Revolution of 1917. Under the impression of his deliberation Anya learns to look at things around from different perspectives. The cherry orchard, through which the only thing that her mother and uncle love to do is to cherish their childhood memory, attracts her no longer as the center of attraction. Eventually the cherry orchard gets auctioned. It is bought by none other than Lopakhin. The Ranevsky family departs both from the house and from the orchard. As they leave, the distant sound of cherry trees falling down is heard. The land is made ready for smaller summer houses to be lent. Since its new owner considers keeping such a large orchard is simply an obsolete mode of production and a sheer wastage of potential.
The opening of the play serves several purposes: it first of all sets the focus of the play on memory and the past. We learn that the room we are in is called the “nursery”, even though no children reside here. It was the childhood home of Ranevsky and Gayev. Lopakhin immediately mentions that he has not seen Ranevsky for five years and then mentions an incident that occurred between fifteen and twenty years ago, when he was a teenager. When the stage is briefly left empty during Ranevsky’s arrival, the first person to return to it is Firs; his traditional servants’ clothes and his advanced age both mark him as a figure from the past and associate Ranevsky’s return with a return of that past, as his arrival on the stage directly announces hers. And both the main characters to whom we are introduced—Ranevsky and Lopakhin—are also defined by the way they relate to the past, specifically their childhood memories.
Chekhov here gives us both Lopakhin and Ranevsky’s important character traits, and establishes their relationship. Lopakhin reveals himself almost immediately to be very self-conscious; he talks about what an “idiot” he is, for falling asleep and not meeting Ranevsky at the station and compares himself to “a bull in a china shop”. When he talks about how Ranevksy cleaned his face after his father had beaten him as a child, he pauses after remembering the word “peasant”. He then says, as if in argument, that he is now “rich”. And after Lopakhin remembers being reminded of his place by Ranevsky, he then reminds Dunyasha of her place as well. All these remarks indicate that the source of Lopakhin’s self-consciousness lies in the memories of his brutal, impoverished childhood. But these memories also include Ranevsky’s kindness. Ranevsky’s arrival, then, seems to create an identity crisis in Lopakhin, between the rich businessman he sees himself as now and the peasant to which Ranevsky was kind; his attachment to her draws him towards a past he no longer identifies himself with.
Ranevsky’s first word upon her entrance into the scene is “nursery”; if Lopakhin is trying to distance himself from his past, she is moving towards it. She is full of childish enthusiasm and overstatement, describing the nursery – which she grew up in – as “heavenly”. She weeps. She kisses Dunyasha, and says she feels like “a little girl again”.
“Lyuba”, Ranevsky’s first name, means “love” in Russian, and she can be seen as a symbol of kindness. Her kindness, as we have seen however, is double-edged. Her kindness is that of the noblewoman to the peasant, there is some condescension underlying. Anya also tells us that despite of her bankruptcy, Ranevsky insists on eating lavishly and tipping her waiters handsomely. From Varya we learn that after her son Grisha drowned, she “dropped everything and went,” because “it was too much for her”. This information paints Ranevsky in a more negative light; she is weak and unable to deal with or face reality. She may be fleeing into her memories to avoid facing reality, a reality in which (we already know) she is in debt and has lost two loved ones.
The tone at the play’s opening is balanced and ironic. We learn that though it is May and the cherry trees are in bloom, it is frosty and cold outside. It is an image conflicted between the warmth of life and the cold of winter. Similarly, we have two main characters, both presented sympathetically, one of whom is trying to escape the past and the other who is trying to find refuge in it. Chekhov sets up a tragedy; time is flowing towards an end-point, a catastrophe—the sale of the estate. But in Yepikhodov, we have “tragedy” taken to an extreme; his misfortunes are so constant and inevitable they are comic, as if Chekhov himself is mocking the play’s sense of impending tragedy.
Finally, these first moments serve to foreshadow the rest of the play. The joy of Act One’s arrival is counterbalanced by the tears we will see in the departure of Act Four. The opening of the estate’s windows will become the locking of its doors. Much of the play’s story line will occur off- stage—we only hear or hear about certain key events, and people; Chekov uses the device of an empty stage to foreshadow this emphasis. Firs is the first character to return to the stage after it is emptied, which directly foreshadows Firs’s forthcoming significance to the end of the play.
The cherry orchard after which the title of the play is coined pr.ovides the central locale to the play. The first thing to note is that it is gargantuan, much larger than any cherry orchard anywhere in Russia; Lopakhin implies it is nearly 2,500 acres in size, large even to the point of absurdity. The orchard is a monolithic, beautiful relic of the past, and it thus comes to symbolize the past, where the past can be either Ranevsky’s individual past or Russia’s national history. In the symbol of the orchard, both historical and personal memories are intertwined. Lopakhin begins this process by referring to the orchard as the “old cherry orchard”. Firs then remembers a time, “forty or fifty years ago”, when the orchard’s cherries were made into jam; but the recipe is now lost. Firs’s memory is one of a bygone age, and his figure of forty to fifty years is not coincidental: with the action of the play taking place in the early 1900’s, it puts the orchard as being profitable before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. Serfs were peasants who were owned by their masters, and their liberation marked a turning point in Russian society. Through Firs’s memories the orchard—and its beauty—becomes identified with a specific bygone historical era, which is the time before the serfs were freed.
The orchard is also identified with Gayev’s and Ranevsky’s personal memories. Gayev asks Lubov if she remembers how the orchard’s avenue “gleams on moonlit nights you can’t have forgotten?” Ranevsky literally sees an emblem of those memories—her dead mother walking through the orchard—before she realizes it is an illusion; merely “a little white tree which has leant over, and looks like a woman.” Ranevsky shows herself, and will continue to show herself, to be someone willing to believe in pleasant illusions, such as the illusion of security provided by her childhood home.
But these personal memories also have a historical significance. Ranevsky and Gayev identify themselves not only with their own childhood pasts, but also with Russia’s historical past. For they are both roughly as old as Firs’s memories of the orchard; Gayev is fifty-one, and Ranevsky presumably a bit younger. And they both are members of the wealthy landowning class whom the liberal reforms of the 1860s displace.
The orchard serves, then, to symbolize memory. The orchard’s impending destruction, by extension, symbolizes the destruction of that memory. In other words, it symbolizes forgetting: forgetting one’s childhood, one’s past, or one’s history. The various characters are largely characterized by their reaction to this process. Ranevsky is someone who either doesn’t want to or can’t forget; certain, more distant, memories she wants to keep; others she wants to destroy. But she is drawn to her memories in the same strong way that she is drawn to the orchard. She is overjoyed to be back in “the nursery” in which she grew up; when she sees Trofimov, she can’t help remembering her son’s drowning and is in grief. Though we do not yet know it, the two telegrams are from a lover in Paris whom she has just left. This insistent voice from her adult life she destroys by ripping up the paper. Lopakhin, on the other hand, would seem to like nothing better than to forget; his past is a brutal one, linked to the brutality of serfdom. And he actively encourages the destruction of the orchard; for him it is a barrier to prosperity and well being, both that of Ranevsky and of the future cottage-holders who may one day spend their summers there. Ranevsky and Lopakhin’s attitudes towards the orchard are consistent with their attitudes towards the historical and personal memories it symbolizes.
The scene with the four young servants is seen as a simple comic relief at its first impression. Chekhov definitely changes the tone of the play somewhat from the more serious discussion that ended the last act toward a more comedic voice. But he is also commenting on memory, about nature, and about drama itself in this presentation of a pastoral idyll, full of poplar and cherry trees. But the idyll is not wholly interrupted: the telegraph poles challenge and disrupt this picture of things, and Charlotte, as a young woman, wears a man’s hat and carries a man’s weapon. She is a woman who cannot remember whether her mother and father were married, where she came from or who she is. Charlotte’s lack of memory constitutes a lack of identity, and this linkage of memory and identity will prove important later on.
Yephikodov also has something of an identity crisis; he self-consciously he wishes to be considered a Romantic, yet is extremely unconvincing in the role, to such an extent that it is funny. His songs are mournful, yet to Charlotte they sound like “hyenas”; he claims to contemplate suicide, even bringing out his revolver, but in his hands the weapon is totally unconvincing and generates no concern amongst the others. With Yephikodov, Chekhov does several things. First, he satirizes the romantic, idealistic hero, common in Russian literature amongst authors like Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky—characters such as Eugene Onegin and Prince Myshkin from The Idiot. Yephikodov’s talk of suicide might even be seen as a gross parody of Hamlet’s contemplation of suicide in his famous soliloquoy; Shakespeare was widely read among Russian writers. More specifically, however, Yephikodov’s revolver, as well as Charlotte’s shotgun, mock nineteenth-century theatre’s traditional reliance on “the gun”; many nineteenth-century plays were intensely melodramatic stories revolving around a duel or some other act of violence. With this act of mockery, Chekhov at once declares his independence from nineteenth-century theater and also seems to warn against interpreting the current play in a tragic light; tragedy is much too funny, it seems, to be really tragic.
Charlotte is a more complex character than Yephikodov; she stands apart from the lovers, declaring herself “alone”. As she leaves, she spouts a paradox in saying that “these clever men are all so stupid.” Again, Chekhov is making an allusion here to Shakespeare, to a type of character that Shakespeare often employed, which is that of the Fool. As a carnival trickster, she is adept at manipulating illusions; the implication is that she can recognize the illusions others create and by which are fooled. For example, the illusion Yephikodov creates that he is a Romantic hero, which convinces no one. Or Dunyasha’s illusion that Yasha is in love with her, which convinces only herself; it is clear that Yasha considers Dunyasha to be nothing more than “a tasty little morsel”. And there is Yasha’s illusion of culture and sophistications, to which both Yasha and Dunyasha succumb, but which is belied intellectually by his boorish treatment of Dunyasha and physically by the acrid smoke of his cigar.
The first part of the second act of the play emphasizes the complexity of the conflict between Lopakhin and Ranevsky and, by extension, the complexity of the different stances towards memory and forgetting that they represent. Lopakhin, as always, is the man of facts and figures: the orchard will be sold; it is just a matter to whom. In this situation, he comes across as demanding, pompous, and arrogant; he wants a simply “yes or no” and is insensitive to Ranevsky’s obvious emotional attachment to the cherry orchard.
But we can feel his frustration when he calls Gayev an “old woman.” Gayev behaves, in fact, like an infant, refusing to even consider Lopakhin’s proposal, making random remarks about billiards when they are discussing a serious matter. And when Ranevsky insults Lopakhin, telling him his life is “drab,” we feel sympathetic for him in this situation, especially because of his peasant childhood, his abusive father, and his lack of refinement. When he castigates himself for his poor handwriting, we feel his insecurity. And this undercuts the impression we have formed of him as pompous and arrogant from the way he attempts to dictate to Ranevsky and Gayev.
Ranevsky herself seems unable to comprehend her present situation. This reinforces our impression of her as being childish, as does her dismissal of Lopakhin’s scheme as “vulgar”, when it may be the only way out of her financial mess. A mess for which, by her own admission, she is mostly to blame. But she also attracts the reader’s sympathy. She has suffered tragedy in her life, and the fact that she was unable to bear it and was driven to a suicide attempt is a cause for pity.
Furthermore, she acknowledges her problems with money, the foolishness of her extravagant spending habits. There is the feeling that she is trying to be more reasonable, more practical, but is having great difficulty. We are tempted to feel for both characters. The tone of the play, then, switches between comic and tragic; we see the “scatter-brained” Gayev through Lopakhin’s eyes as being ridiculous, as we laugh sympathetically at Lopakhin’s insecurities and feel compassion for Ranevksy and her struggles.
An important part of Gayev’s characterization is brought out by Yasha’s laughter in this section: Gayev appears utterly ridiculous to the younger generation. Anya, too, is always interrupting his “foolish” speeches, out of concern that he doesn’t embarrass himself. For Gayev is a perpetual infant; he makes strange remarks, deals with Lopakhin’s arguments by name-calling, and is continually popping sweets into his mouth. Firs mothers him, reminding Gayev in Act One to wear his overcoat and again in Act Two. Ranevsky’s apparent yearning to be a child again is taken to a logical extreme in Gayev, who is virtually a child, stuck emotionally and intellectually in his youth. In his youth, his family members were still wealthy landowners, and they probably still owned serfs. He is thus tied to the old feudal order in a way that makes him anachronistic in present-day society, and his inability to grow as a human being ensures that he will stay that way.
In the later part of the second scene Chekhov makes explicit the social allegory that has, until now, been only implicit in the characters of Lopakhin and Ranevsky. The agent of this change in the text is Trofimov. Trofimov serves as a foil for Lopakhin. His idealism contrasts with Lopakhin’s materialism, his high-flown rhetoric underscores Lopakhin’s lack of sophistication. Yet they share a similar disdain for the past, which is symbolized by the cherry orchard. With Trofimov, however, this disdain has an intellectual foundation, whereas Lopakhin’s is rooted in personal memories.
To Trofimov, the cherry orchard is a symbol of oppression: its leaves are full of the faces of people that Anya’s family “once owned,” and it is full of the legacy of serfdom. Trofimov rails against Russian intellectuals, who merely talk about ideas but never act on them, while he exalts practical men and men of action. To Trofimov, all this is evidence of a need to break with the past, to forge a bold new future, through work. Through the effect of his ideas on Anya, Trofimov manages to decrease her affection for the orchard; “Why is it that I’m not as fond of the orchard as I used to be?” she asks him. He replies, “All Russia is our orchard,” thus explicitly broadening the scope of the play, beyond the confines of Ranevsky’s estate, to Russian society as a whole. The debate in which Trofimov is engaged is over who will write the history of the orchard, thereby choosing all that the orchard represents. Some see it as a symbol of beauty and some see it as a symbol of Russia’s oppressive past. Judging by his conversion of Anya, it seems that Trofimov is succeeding in spreading his opinion of the orchard to future generations.
There is some irony, however, in Trofimov’s speech. First of all, his position seems to have arisen in intellectual conversation with Gayev. And if anyone fits Trofimov’s description of the Russian intellectual, then Trofimov and Gayev do – their lives are spent in conversation. Trofimov is the “eternal student”, according to Lopakhin; he has been studying all his adult life; it has apparently made him very “ugly”, at least according to Ranevsky. He is the stereotypical scholar, definitely not a man of action.
In contrast to Gayev, Lopakhin and Trofimov appear remarkably similar. One might think Trofimov would admire Lopakhin. Lopakhin seems to embody the practicality of which Trofimov speaks: he gets up at “five every morning” in order to work all day long. He subscribes to a common sense version of the more sophisticated Social Darwinism that Trofimov advocates. But instead of his admiration, Lopakhin is the subject of a (somewhat jovial) disdain, and the feeling is mutual. For while Trofimov appeals to ideals such as truth and humanity to frame what is essentially a socialist utopian ideology—heavily influenced by the works of Karl Marx as well as Darwin’s theory of evolution—Lopakhin works, not for humanity, but for money. The “sound of a breaking cable” comes during a silence in this debate; and Firs, the voice of the past, dislikes it intensely. The last time he has heard it was around the time the serfs were freed, a momentous event in Russian history that marked the beginning of the end for the aristocracy, the beginning of confusion for Firs, and the beginning of a new age for Trofimov. The breaking of the cable thus becomes identified with the end of an era. It is a break in time. To reverse Gayev’s metaphor, the dead and the living are now “unjoined”. And it is now heard just before the sale of the cherry orchard, a momentous event in the personal history of the Ranevsky’s family. Thus, the sound of the breaking cable explicitly links the personal history of the characters with the wider world of Russian society.
The third act basically buids the dramatic tension. It has a much quicker pace than the two preceding acts, which contain, as Donald Rayfield notes, zero pauses compared to seven in Act One and sixteen in Act Two. At first, we are presented with dancing, music and, we must imagine, happiness. Then all of a sudden, Varya enters weeping. Immediately, tension is created; we want to know why, in the midst of all this celebration, Varya is so sad.
Two answers emerge. First of all, there is the matter of Lopakhin and his reluctance to propose. Trofimov’s teasing of Varya only reveals an underlying sensitivity to the matter. Everyone else treats Lopakhin and Varya’s engagement as something that has already happened. But Varya has severe doubts about whether Lopakhin will ever take the time to settle down and get married. She feels that he is much too preoccupied with his business affairs to do so. And the other source of tension is, of course, the auction. Varya has a double interest in the sale of the estate; not only is she Ranevksy’s adopted daughter, but she is also Ranevksy’s estate manager. Any change in the hands of ownership will probably mean the loss of her job. Not only does this represent a loss of livelihood, it represents the loss of a significant part of her identity, and right now, in the absence of any proposal from Lopakhin, her only source of emotional fulfillment. Chekhov shows Varya as someone who takes pride and fulfillment from her work; she is concerned with the well being of the estate, and often worries and discusses the problems of managing it. And this source of emotional fulfillment is now in danger of being taken from her. In light of this danger, her repeated desire to go to a convent seems to have more to do with security than with religiosity, especially since we have no other indications to suggest that Varya is religious.
Both these concerns are rooted in financial concerns, and, truly, money functions in The Cherry Orchard as an instrument of power. Lopakhin and Deriganov, the rich man interested in buying the estate, both have money; and they therefore have control over what happens to Varya. In other words, while it may seem just that Lopakhin should have power because of his work ethic, we see in Varya a character with a similar work ethic, yet who is powerless; she is powerless to propose to Lopakhin, because she is a woman and powerless to stop the loss of her orchard, because she is the daughter of a profligate (squandering/ wasteful) mother. Another way of looking at Varya is that she is powerless by two accidents of birth.
We can read this section of the play as criticizing the capitalistic, materialist values of Lopakhin, which were spreading throughout Russian society at this time. By forgetting his personal history, Lopakhin attempts to sever his ties with his peasant past in the same way that Russian society forgets its national history in an attempt to free itself of the legacy of serfdom. But merely freeing the serfs does not free Russian society of its legacy of bondage— as Trofimov notes at the end of Act Two—this legacy has infected all Russians. Varya, a woman without money, is still in a position of powerlessness in society; she still suffers a sort of serfdom to Lopakhin. And this is the central irony of the situation; Lopakhin, the grandson of the oppressed, has now become an oppressor.
Charlotte initially seems to provide simple comic relief; but her comedy will also serve to heighten the poignancy of the loss of the orchard. She breaks the rising tension we feel out of concern for Varya and Ranevksy’s well being. The sleight-of-hand tricks she performs—guessing cards, making people appear from behind a rug, ventriloquism—all emphasize illusion. Illusions, are an appropriate subject, because a central illusion is about to be unveiled. This is Ranevsky’s illusion of security, her illusion that she can find refuge from the present in memories of the past.
Central to the third act of the play is the argument between Trofimov and Ranevsky. It centers around the question in their argument is that of truth: whose perspective, whose memories should be accepted as true? Trofimov proves to be an excellent foil for Ranevsky in this debate. He is ugly and intellectual, the “eternal student,” his life revolves around searching for objective truth. Ranevsky, on the other hand, is intuitive and beautiful; for her, the truth is a much more slippery concept than it is to Trofimov. Trofimov begs Ranevsky to “face the truth”, namely, that her lover in Paris is unworthy of her affection and a drain on her emotional and financial resources, resources that she should be using to save her estate. Trofimov declares himself to be “above love”, implying that he is superior to anyone under the sway of love, such as Ranevksy. Ranevksy’s first name, Lyuba, means “love”, and she defends her actions using love as her justification. She feels she should go to Paris to be with her lover, and she defends this opinion by saying “I love him,” and asking, “what else can I do?” She tells Trofimov that he can only see “what is true and untrue,” and that she has “lost her sight” in these matters. Knowledge is here equated with vision. But ironically enough, she also argues that the only reasons Trofimov thinks he can see truth is that he is “too young to see what life is really like,” implying that now it is Trofimov who has no vision and is blind.
To Ranevksy, this inability to love is “unnatural,” and she accuses Trofimov of being “a ridiculous freak, a type of monster.” Ranevsky uses Nature as a weapon to discredit Trofimov. Her cherry orchard, and by extension, her memories are natural. And she identifies herself fully with her memories, by identifying herself with the cherry orchard, saying, “if you sell it you might as well sell me.” Trofimov, in contrast, has no past. He is “too young,” and he has no memory. Compared to Ranevsky, he is nothing. He is “ugly” and a “seedy- looking gent.” What is more important for Ranevsky are that one’s memories reflect one’s vision of how the world should be, rather than any objective set of facts about how it is.
Interestingly, when Ranevsky wins their argument, she suddenly disclaims her remarks as only being “a joke,” and she is not comfortable with a victory that alienates her from Trofimov. Her desire to love others and be loved here makes her admirable and sympathetic to the point that she will lie to herself and Trofimov about what just happened between them. Chekhov reminds us what this willingness to ignore reality and to believe in pleasant illusions has cost her. Firs remarks that the estate used to have generals and barons attend their parties, and now they have difficulty attracting post-office clerks and stationmasters. The stationmaster himself begins reciting a poem called The Sinful Woman. We don’t have to believe the stationmaster is intentionally referring to Ranevsky to see the connection between her and the archetypal Sinful Woman of literature; Ranevsky has cheated on her husband, lived an extravagant life, and is now on the brink of disaster. In fact, disaster has already occurred; the orchard has already been sold to Lopakhin while Ranevsky dances. These details all subtly mock Ranevsky’s idealism, making it look instead more like idiocy.
At a later part of the third act Lopakhin’s revelation, that he has bought the orchard, is the climax of the play. If we wish to read it as a tragedy, then this is the play’s catastrophe, its horrific event. But, Chekhov handles the situation comically. Lopakhin waits until the last possible moment to reveal that is was he who bought the orchard. Always the man of facts and figures, he recounts the auction in detail and with glee, including the amount of each bid. As he leaves, he nearly knocks over a candelabra from a table, but instead of being self-conscious about his clumsiness and recognizing it as a sign of his peasant origins, he reacts nonchalantly, saying, “I can pay for everything now.” The key word here is “now.” Lopakhin’s triumph is his final escape from his past and from his memory; his purchase of the orchard is proof that he is the rich businessman he is now, and not the peasant child he remembers himself as being then. Lopakhin’s mentioning of his grandparents is of particular interest, for in the moment of the greatest separation from his past he seems not to forget but instead to remember. He ponders, if his grandfather and grandmother “could only rise from their graves to see what has happened” and witness that their grandson, who “used to run around barefoot,” is now the owner of the orchard, the place where his grandparents were treated as slaves. But such memories are safe for Lopakhin now, because the implication is that his grandparents would not recognize him: he has proven to their memory, as well as to himself, that he is no longer a peasant.
And Lopakhin contemplates one final act of revenge against the past. “[Y]ou just watch Yermolay Lopakhin get his axe into that cherry orchard, watch the trees come crashing down. We’ll fill the place with cottages.” The image is one replete with violence; Lopakhin will be personally destroying the trees, destroying what he himself has called “the most beautiful place in the world.” His appreciation of this beauty, yet his willingness to destroy it, creates an uneasy tension, leaving us wondering why he not only accepts, but also delights in the thought of destroying the orchard. This tension must exist firmly within Lopakhin himself, since the orchard represents the best that the Russia of Lopakhin’s grandparents had to offer. It is “the most beautiful place in the world,” and, moreover, so large that it probably could only have been supported by the oppressive economic system then in place. In obliterating it, Lopakhin obliterates the attractive beauty from the memory of that social world, leaving only its repulsive oppression, but he also attempts to obliterate his own oppressive memories of a brutal peasant childhood. So Lopakhin’s destruction of the cherry orchard symbolizes his desire to forget his peasant past, as well as the desire that Russia should forget its own peasant past; in other words, its history of serfdom.
But while he exults, Ranevsky weeps. And it is typical that of the dramatic structure of The Cherry Orchard that right after his moment of triumph, Lopakhin acts out his ugliest moment in the play. We see the insensitivity of the celebrating Lopakhin when faced with Ranevsky’s sadness, especially when he sees that she is weeping. Instead of consoling her, he goes up to her in a reproachful tone. In effect, he gloats, evoking an I-told-you-so type of response. In previous scenes, we were liable to feel sorry for Lopakhin when he described his thick-headedness and his lack of refinement. But here he proves himself to be deserving of this image—he is “a bull in a china shop,” both emotionally (in that he is insensitive) and physically (in that he is clumsy). When juxtaposed with his recent triumph, this behavior is definitely ironic. The irony arises from the fact that while Lopakhin exults about his freedom from his peasant origins, his clumsiness, his insensitivity, and his emotional brutality towards Ranevsky, are all the character traits of a peasant. They thus prove that the brutality of Lopakhin’s peasant past is still very much a part of him even if he does forget it. He is infected by it, much as Trofimov thinks all of Russian society is infected by the legacy of serfdom.
Act Foure play is thematically centered around the act of forgetting, it seems appropriate that the final act seems to forget the development of the three acts that preceded it. Lopakhin is still energetic, outgoing, and concerned with money—we learn from him that the champagne cost eight rubles a bottle—and insensitive to the feelings of Ranevsky. Ranevsky is still unable to control her generosity, giving a whole purse away. Gayev is still concerned about his sister, Yasha still wants to leave and Trofimov is still idealistic and naïve. The mood is initially upbeat. This sameness, this lack of change, should run against our expectations. In the previous scene, readers were presented with the loss of the cherry orchard, a seemingly catastrophic event. In this, the falling action of the play, we expect to see the consequences of this climax. But there don’t seem to be any consequences, except for the simple fact that Lopakhin owns the orchard and is now cutting it down.
Chekhov holds off on the consequences because it fits in with the naturalistic, balanced way he has developed the play up to this point. Ranevsky will not become a completely different person after the loss of her orchard. She will, for the most part, be the same person, and if she is going to change the change will have to be long and gradual. The effects of a momentous event, Chekhov seems to be telling us, and the changes in identity that it brings, are often not felt until long after it occurs, be it the emancipation of the serfs or the loss of the cherry orchard.
In case we were going to draw the conclusion that the loss of the cherry orchard was somehow predestined, Pischik comes along to spoil that illusion. This is a perfect example of what Donald Styan calls Chekhov’s “dialectic” method of presenting a drama, taking us in and out of the play all the time with new details. Pischik is, if anything, more irresponsible and foolhardy than Ranevsky, more liable to talk endlessly in the face of impending financial disaster; in the previous Act, he enjoyed himself at the party, even though the next day a mortgage of 310 roubles was due. If Ranevsky is paralyzed by an inability to face reality, then Pischik is her “scatter-brained” nature taken to a comical extreme. Indeed, his last name, which means “squeaker” in Russian, indicates that he is a comic caricature.
But Pischik is also lucky. First of all, he is lucky to have a friend like Ranevksy who will loan him money even though she has none herself. And secondly, he is lucky to possess some white china clay on his property that Englishmen are willing to pay 400 rubles in order to lease for twenty-four years. It is of course possible, in fact, probably likely, that Pischik was just taken advantage of, but this does not change the fact that Pischik still has his property and is now in slightly less debt than Ranevsky. Pischik challenges the air of inevitability. His story, so far, has a happy ending. And this seems to be purely a matter of chance.
There is one key difference between Pischik and Ranevksy, however. Pischik possesses neither Ranevsky’s idealism nor her desire to escape the present, to construct an illusion of security for herself in the world of her childhood. In Act Three, he admits he can’t think of anything but money, which is natural for a man deeply in debt. Ranevsky, however, can only think of her orchard, her family, her brother, and love, and doesn’t think about money at all. So even though Pischik’s optimism seems much more unjustified than Ranevsky’s gloom, he is tuned in to reality in a way that she isn’t. He remembers the importance of money, whereas Ranevsky forgets.
The second part of the final act is significant for, many of the most important moments in The Cherry Orchard take place when no one is speaking. In this last scene, we have two such moments: Ranevsky and Gayev sobbing in each other’s arms and Firs’s lying motionless on the couch. Ranevsky reminds Gayev that their mother used to walk around the very room in which they now stand. At the very end, in her last moments in her house, she affirms the house’s connection with the past; it seems that this is ultimately what the house means to her. When she and Gayev cry in each other’s arms, they cry for the past they are about to lose.
The Cherry Orchard poses the question of whether the characters are better off moving on or if this is truly their tragic end. It is a play about what happens when the present becomes unmoored from the past. This can be either a release, or a tragedy, or both (as for Ranevsky). It can also be the start of a new and better age, as it is for Lopakhin and Trofimov. It can simply be the start of great uncertainty. But for the memories that are forgotten, it means nothing but annihilation. Thus, Firs is forgotten in both a literal sense and a metaphorical sense at the end of the play. Firs is literally left behind and forgotten by the rest of the family. But Firs’s perspective on and memories of the past will be “forgotten” too. They will die with him, as will the beauty of the cherry orchard, because the next generation of Russians in the play- Trofimov, Anya, Yasha, Varya-will not remember them. This destruction, this severing of the future from the past, is underlined and emphasized by the sound of the breaking cable.
As Firs dies, he mumbles something about how “life has passed him by.” This is an odd thing for Firs to say, considering how he is always telling stories about the old days. But it is consistent with the idea of him being forgotten. When a society is severed from its past, its memories and values are lost. The dead are not only then dead, they are forgotten, as if they never existed.
Critical issues and related quotes
- The cherry orchard is metaphorical of the entire Russian society as Anya is told by Trofimov – “All Russia is our orchard.”
- Change of Russian economy with the growth of a new middle class people that includes Lopakhin. The secret if the rise of such people is hard labour and a dream for change.
“I’ve made myself rich, got a lot of money”- Lopakhin
“One time,when I couldn’t sleep,I thought, “Lord,you gave us vast forests, boundless fields, broad horizons, and living here, we really ought to be giants…” Lopakhin
“I bought the estate where my grandfather and father were slaves, where they weren’t allowed into the kitchen… Lopakhin will take the axe to the cherry orchard, how the trees will fall to the ground! We’ll build summer houses and our grandchildren and their greatchildren will see a new life.” Loakhin
The aristocracy has proved to be simply obsolete-
They waste money in unproductive affairs like Lubov coming back home after exhausting everything she had.
Again this class of people can in no way cope up with the change of time-
“Summer houses and summer folk- it’s so vulgar, forgive me.” Lubov
- Darwinism- survival of the fittest
The play begins with ‘It is May; the cherries are already in bloom’
At the end of the final act the play ends with ‘The silence descends and only the farway sound of the axe chopping the trees in the orchard is heard.’
- The theoretical orientation of the essential change that the play projects:
“All Russia is our orchard.” -Trofimov
“… before their very eyes, the workers eat disgustingly, sleep without pillows, thirty or forty in a single room, everywhere there are bedbugs, stench, dampness, immorality…”
“Anya, your grandfather and great-grandfather, and all your ancestors were serf-owners, owners of living souls. So isn’t it possible that behind each cherry tree in the orchard, behind each leaf, behind each trunk, there are human beings looking out at you?”- Trofimov
- Deplorable condition of the Ranevsky family, and of the Russian gentry:
The music and dance party attended by postal clerk, station master- people belonging to the lower section of the society.
“Don’t feel well. Before this, generals, barons, admirals used to dance at our balls, but now we send for a postal clerk and the station master, and even they don’t feel much like coming.” Firs
- Intrusion of new people in the comfort zone of the aristocrats – entry of the passerby