Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Whereas Chekhov depicts the defeat of the cultured elite in one of drama’s saddest works, The Three Sisters, he examines the same problem from a more comic-ironic view in The Cherry Orchard. While Konstantin Stanislavsky staged the premiere of the play as a somber tragedy, Chekhov insisted, in letters about this production, on calling it “not a drama but a comedy, in places almost a farce.” Nonetheless, it has most often been performed as pathetic drama. Surely, its subjects are depressingly serious: the loss of an ancestral estate; the rise of a semiliterate, ambitious middle class to replace the aristocracy; the dispossession and scattering of the Ranevskaya family and household; and the guilt and remorse of Lyuba, who cannot resist her attachment to an unworthy man. The play’s concerns are loss, the failure to communicate and comprehend, and the death of an old order.
The Cherry Orchard presents a dilemma: The Ranevskaya family, which includes landowner Lyuboff (Lyuba) Andreena Ranevskaya, her brother Gayev, daughter Anya, and adopted daughter Varya, faces two alternatives that it finds equally unacceptable: either to lose the estate on the auction block because of its unpaid mortgage, or to destroy its uniqueness by chopping down its cherry trees and razing the residence to replace it with summer cottages. The second option, which will be exercised by the businessman who buys the orchard at auction, Yermolay Alexeevich Lopahin, offers what the gentry considers a vulgar economic solution at the expense of its cherished values of beauty and inspiration. In this situation, Mme Ranevskaya chooses not to act, thereby forfeiting the property.
Before the reader/spectator laments the losses dramatized, it would be well to understand precisely what is being lost, and why. Chekhov softens the act of dispossession by qualifying sympathy for the victims and complicating the character of the despoiler. Certainly, both Lyuba and Gayev, while charming and well intentioned, are a good deal less pathetic and attractive than their predecessors, the Prozorovs. Lyuba is irresponsible, negligent, and self-destructive. Her indolence and uncontrollable extravagance bring her house tumbling...
(The entire section is 912 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
When Madame Ranevskaya’s little son, Grischa, drowns only a year after the death of her husband, her grief is so overwhelming that she goes to Paris to forget, and she remains away for five years. The Easter before her return to her estate in Russia, she sends for her seventeen-year-old daughter Anya to join her. To pay the expenses of her trip and that of her daughter, Madame Ranevskaya is forced to sell her villa at Mentone, and she now has nothing left. She returns home to find that her whole estate, including a cherry orchard, which is so famous that it is mentioned in an encyclopedia, is to be sold at auction to pay her debts. Madame Ranevskaya is heartbroken, but her old friend Lopakhin, a merchant whose father was once a serf on her ancestral estate, proposes a way out. He says that if the cherry orchard is cut down and the land divided into lots for rental to summer cottagers, she will be able to realize an income of at least twenty-five thousand rubles a year.
Madame Ranevskaya cannot endure the thought that her childhood home with all its memories will be subjected to such a fate, and all the members of her family agree with her. Her brother Gaev, who remains behind to manage the estate, is convinced that there must be some other way out, but none of his ideas seem feasible. It will be fine, he thinks, if they all come in for a legacy, or if Anya can be wed to a rich man, or if their wealthy aunt can be persuaded to come to their aid. The aunt does not, however, entirely approve of Madame Ranevskaya, who, she believes, married beneath her.
The thought that Gaev himself might do something never occurs to him; he goes on playing billiards and munching candy as he did all his life. Others who make up the household have similar futile dreams. Varya, an adopted daughter, hopes that God might do something about the situation. Pischin, a neighboring landowner, who is saved financially when the railroad...
(The entire section is 789 words.)