What does a comparison between the plays of Chekhov in The Cherry Orchard and Ibsen with Hedda Gabler tell us about the social changes happening at the end of the 19th century?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the works of Chekhov and Ibsen, it becomes clear that the shifting landscape of interpersonal dynamics helps to define the social changes taking place at the end of the 19th Century.  Both playwrights depict worlds in which motivations such as power and control lie at the basis of human consciousness and social change.  Such realities are evident in Hedda Gabler and The Cherry Orchard.

The shifting world of interpersonal dynamics is of vital importance to Ibesen's Hedda Gabler.  Even in the mere naming of his protagonist, Ibsen speaks to how social changes are an emergent reality at the end of the 19th Century: "My intention in giving it this name was to indicate that Hedda as a personality is to be regarded rather as her father's daughter than her husband's wife."  Within this idea, Ibsen speaks to how the social landscape is changing in terms of identity.  Ibsen articulates a multi- faceted notion of identity that exists within individuals of the 19th Century.  Human beings are intricate and complex.  They are not the simplistic and reductive constructions which represent one notion of the good.  Rather, Ibsen articulates that part of the dynamics that move social changes towards the end of the 19th Century see individuals as embracing and embodying multiple roles.  Hedda is her father's daughter, her husband's wife, an agent of repressed action, and an agent of autonomy. Hedda is all of these things.  She embodies part of the changing social fabric and interpersonal dynamics that is evident towards the end of the 19th Century.

The way in which Ibsen constructs Hedda's characterization also speaks to the changing social fabric emerging at the end of the 19th Century.  For example, women are much more than subservient to men.  Hedda is show to harbor feelings of repressed love with her desire to be coveted by Eilert, but settling in her marriage to George.  She displays a sense of autonomy with her plan to control Eilert and act upon her desire to be in control, to be an agent of her own action.  This is also seen in her burning the manuscript, and even in her suicide.  Hedda is also shown to be someone who is no longer in control of her own life, seen in her pregnancy, her marriage, and in Brack's position of power over her at the end of the drama. The world that Ibsen constructs in Hedda Gabler is one where nothing is what it seems.  Individual motivation lies subterranean, helping to develop a complex notion of social interactions and interpersonal dynamics.  Selfishness, betrayal, control, and a desire to appropriate others in accordance to one's own subjectivity governs human interactions and thus facilitates a changing social landscape.  Ibsen clearly suggests that the way in which individuals interact with one another is a reflection of a changing world towards the end of the 19th Century.  This shifting landscape forged by newly emergent realities of interpersonal dynamics defines the social change that Ibsen sees as intrinsic to the time period.

Chekhov articulates a similar set of shifting characteristics in the world of The Cherry Orchard.  The drama's premise speaks to a world where social change is illuminated in the changing interpersonal dynamics that govern individuals and their place in the world.  The auctioning off of an aristocratic mansion is in its own way a statement of how social change is reflected in the changes through which human beings relate to one another.  The Ranevsky family struggles with their changing condition in the world.  The aristocracy no longer enjoys the power it once did, while the people who serve on it, such as Lopakhin emerge from subservience into a position of power.  Mrs. Ranevsky embodies such change when she says, "If only this heavy load could be lifted from my heart; if only I could forget my past!''  Chekhov makes clear that individuals are complex beings in the world, carrying the weight of their past in light of an uncertain present and future.  Mrs. Ranevsky does not articulate a sense of monolithic power and control.  She struggles to make sense of what is and cannot fathom what will be because what was is no longer what it used to be.  Chekhov continues the idea that the social landscape of the late 19th Century is dominated by individuals who cannot fully articulate what to do and how to live. In this social tableau, perceived certainty has become supplanted by personal insecurity. The social changes illuminated by shifting interpersonal dynamics can be seen in Gayev's statement of futility:  "I've been thinking, racking my brains; I've got all sorts of remedies, lots of them, which, of course, means I haven't got one." The ever changing social landscape of the time period is one in which social composition is defined by a generation of Hamlets, children of a lost father and completely unclear as to what progress resembles.  The result is a world in which power has completely changed:

...all your ancestors owned serfs. They owned living beings. Can't you see human beings looking at you from every cherry tree in your orchard, from every leaf and every tree trunk? To own living souls—that's what has changed you all so much—That's why your mother, you yourself, and your uncle no longer realize that you are living on borrowed capital, at other people's expense, at the expense of those whom you don't admit farther than your entrance hall.

Trofimov's words articulate the landscape of shifting personal dynamics which Chekhov sees as definitive in the late 19th Century.  Class conflict, tectonic movement of power and control, and the complexity of human identity all define what social change looks like to Chekhov in The Cherry Orchard.