The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov

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What happens in The Cherry Orchard?

In The Cherry Orchard, impoverished landowner Lyuba Ranevskaya and her family must choose to either sell off their land or raze their cherry orchard in order to pay Lyuba's mortgage. Lyuba's ultimate decision to sell the property destroys the dreams of her family members, who are then consigned to lives of servitude and regret.

  • After the deaths of her son and husband, Madame Lyuba Ranevskaya travels to Paris to escape her grief. Five years later, she returns to discover that her estate is deep in debt.

  • Lyuba is faced with a decision: either sell her estate at auction (where it's sure to fetch a lower price than it's worth) or tear down her famed cherry orchard and build new summer cottages she can rent out.

  • In the end, Lyuba refuses to destroy the orchard and loses her estate.

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Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 down. Granted, to her the orchard emblematizes childhood innocence, the elegance of the old, leisured, manorial nobility, culture, grace, purity, and beauty. Yet Lyuba’s visions of innocence and childhood have had to yield to her tarnished adulthood with its reckless adultery, girlishness, and inertia. Once the symbol of a vigorous way of life, the orchard now represents the decay and rottenness that have overtaken that life.

While the orchard reminds Lyuba of her pure childhood, it strikes the student-tutor Trofimov as a memento of slavery. He tells the seventeen-year-old Anya of the guilty dreams of Russia’s decaying upper class:Just think . . . your grandfather . . . and all your forefathers were serf owners—they owned living souls. Don’t you see human beings gazing at you from every cherry tree in your orchard . . . don’t you hear voices?

Eloquently idealistic though Trofimov is, he has his less engaging side. Chekhov is usually ironic at the...

(The entire section is 1,701 words.)