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 expense of the activist, and he shows Trofimov as slothful, superficial, fatuous, and undersexed. The volatile Lyuba lashes out at him for urging her to confront the truth of her miserable situation; she stabs cruelly at his immaturity. Horrified, he rushes out of the room and tumbles down the stairs. After a remorseful Lyuba begs his pardon and dances with him, they forgive each other. Chekhov shows how his characters can lapse from dignity only to accentuate their humanity.
The self-made merchant/developer Lopahin plays a profoundly ambiguous role in the drama. He is the despoiler of the old order, who cannot restrain his class-conscious sense of triumph when he has acquired the orchard at the auction: He rightly calls himself “a pig in a pastry shop,” is brisk with the servants, pitiless with Gayev, and insensitive to Varya, who would like to marry him. Yet he is the most positive character in the play. He labors, with increasing exasperation, to bring the befuddled gentry to their senses. He is alone in having energy, purpose, dedication, and shrewdness enough to suggest how the estate can be converted into a profitable operation. He worships Lyuba and can refuse her nothing, though he despairs of her ability to survive. Most likely, she is the secret love of his life, furnishing the real reason why he will not marry Varya. Chekhov depicts Lopahin as generous, unpretentious, and free of malice; Lopahin’s motives are innocent, though his impact is destructive. In sum, Chekhov markedly softens the act of dispossession.
Moreover, he shows that what is being lost is not, in truth, an order of stability, familial love and unity, innocence and usefulness—these are already long gone. The destruction of the estate is the destruction of illusions, and the drama explores this double negative at many ambivalent and ironic levels of action, characterization, and theme. The governess Charlotta soliloquizes about her rootlessness and life’s emptiness then muffles her words by chewing on a cucumber and clowning. Gayev vows that the estate will not be sold, while continually popping candy into his mouth. Lyuba’s valet Yasha parodies her French manners, while her maid Dunyasha mimics her passionate nature. The rivalry of the clumsy clerk Yepihodov and the insolent Yasha for the affected Dunyasha is a travesty of romantic love. Old, deaf Firs, neglected and abandoned at the play’s end, is a relic of the obsolete days when the orchard’s cherries were abundant and sweet.
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 buys a part of his property, advises a policy of waiting for something to turn up.
Lopakhin, who struggled hard to attain his present position, is frankly puzzled at the family’s stubborn attitude. He has no illusions about himself; in fact, he realizes that, compared with these smooth-tongued and well-mannered aristocrats, he is still only a peasant. He tries to improve himself intellectually, but he falls asleep over the books with which he is supposed to be familiar.
As he gazes at the old cherry orchard in the moonlight, the cherry orchard that seems so beautiful to Madame Ranevskaya, he cannot help thinking of his peasant ancestors, to whom every tree must have been a symbol of oppression. Trofimov, who is little Grischa’s tutor, and who is more expressive than Lopakhin, tries to express this thought to Anya, with whom he is in love.
The cherry orchard is put up at auction. That evening, Madame Ranevskaya gives a ball in the old house, an act in keeping with the unrealistic attitude of her class in general. Even her aged servant, Fiers, supports her and remains loyal to her and her brother. Lopakhin arrives at the party with the news that he bought the estate for ninety thousand rubles above the mortgage. When he announces that he intends to cut down the orchard, Madame Ranevskaya begins to weep. She plans to return to Paris.
Others are equally affected by the sale of the cherry orchard. Gaev, on the basis of the transaction with Lopakhin, is offered a position in the bank at six thousand rubles a year, a position he will not keep because of his laziness. Madame Ranevskaya’s servant, Yasha, is delighted over the sale because the trip to Paris for him means an escape from the boredom of Russian life. For Dunyasha, her maid, the sale means the collapse of her hopes of ever marrying Yasha and instead a lifelong bondage to Yephodov, a poor, ineffectual clerk. To Varya, Madame Ranevskaya’s adopted daughter, it means a position as housekeeper on a nearby estate. To the landowner, Pischin, it is the confirmation of his philosophy. Investigators find valuable minerals on his land, and he is now able to pay his debt to Madame Ranevskaya and to look forward to another temporary period of affluence. Fiers alone is unaffected. Departure of the family is the end of this old servant’s life, for whatever it was worth, but he is more concerned because Gaev, his master, wears his light overcoat instead of a fur coat as he escorts the mistress, Madame Ranevskaya, to the station.