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; Fiers, the old valet, of the glories that used to be; Dunyasha, the maid, of becoming a fine lady; Trofimov, the student, of a magnificent new social order. Their predicament is summed up by Gaev, Madame Ranevskaya’s somewhat unstable brother: “I keep thinking and racking my brains; I have many schemes, a great many, and that really means none.” Only the merchant Lopakhin, the son of a serf, has the energy and will to make his dreams come true—but he does so with the single-mindedness of the ruthless manipulator he may well become.
The few characters who do not dream are perhaps even more pitiable than those who do. Yephodov, nicknamed two-and-twenty misfortunes because of his habitual bad luck, sees failure and despair everywhere. His only triumphant moments come when he fulfills his nickname. Charlotta, the governess, performs tricks to make others laugh because she herself is unable to laugh and views the future with empty eyes. Yasha, the young valet, a callous, self-centered cynic, is beyond dreams.
Only Varya, able to see her dreams for what they are, is realistic and fully human at...
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