The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov’s best-known play, was published in 1904, the year Chekhov died. The author’s brief life had been a painful one. After an unhappy childhood he was forced, by his father’s bankruptcy, to assume the responsibility of supporting his family. This he did by writing at the same time that he pursued a medical degree. By the time he earned his doctorate in 1884, his health was impaired by tuberculosis, which was to cut his life short at the age of forty-four. One might expect the final product of such an existence to reveal bitterness and rage. Instead, like most of Chekhov’s work, The Cherry Orchard exemplifies his profound humanity.
The characters of The Cherry Orchard are not tragic in the usual sense of the word because they are incapable of any great heroic action. Chekhov shows them clearly in their frustrations, jealousies, and loves. Beyond his subtle characterizations, he catches in Madame Ranevskaya’s household a picture of the end of an era, the passing of the semifeudal existence of Russian landowners on their country estates. Chekhov’s fictional world is populated by persons who do not have the perception to understand their own lives, to communicate with those around them, or to bring their dreams to fruition. Most of the characters dream but only a few act. Madame Ranevskaya dreams that their estates will somehow be saved; her daughter, Anya, of a future without blemish;...
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