Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1286
The Cherry Orchard is about an aristocratic family that is unable to prevent its beloved estate from being auctioned off. More symbolically, it is about the growth of the middle class in Russia and the fall of the aristocracy. The once-wealthy family's estate and beloved orchard is purchased by a man who once served as a serf on the estate. Though Chekhov intended the play as a comedy, most productions emphasize the tragedy of the events. Mrs. Ranevsky and her family are unable to find a way to succeed within the new social order of Russia, while Lopakhin profits from the business opportunity and gains personal satisfaction in displacing those who once ruled over him.
Apathy and Passivity
For Mrs. Ranevsky, her daughters, and her brother Leonid Gayev, apathy and passivity have become a way of life, as Mrs. Ranevsky's line "if only this heavy load could be lifted from my heart; if only I could forget my past!'' reveals. Mrs. Ranevsky has given up trying to change her circumstances and is resigned to taking her life as it comes. She goes out to expensive lunches, buys a gift for Anya, lends her neighbor Pishchik money, and gives a gold piece to the homeless hiker in Act Two. Mrs. Ranevsky refuses to accept that she can change her circumstances by changing her behavior. She becomes passive and allows the auction to take place. Gayev, Anya, and Varya also become passive in the situation, and continue to believe that everything will work out. This apathy, combined with a fear of living below the standards to which they've become accustomed—is what keeps the family from saving its orchard.
The family ignores Lopakhin's suggestion of breaking up the orchard into smaller plots for country cottages. Mrs. Ranevsky considers the suggestion vulgar, declaring that the orchard is famous for being the largest and most beautiful in Russia. She and her brother do almost nothing to avert the auction and remaining passive and hoping for a solution or a savior, such as their relative the Countess, seals their fate.
A good example of this passivity is this statement from Gayev: "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." This lack of ability to adapt to the changing social conditions in Russia at the turn of the century was very common, as many wealthy landowners lost their estates to debt. Gayev would rather mime billiard shots than find a real solution to the financial situation in which his family finds itself.
Varya also remains passive, though she tries to save money where she can by feeding the servants only dried peas. It upsets her to stand by as her mother and uncle do nothing, but she is powerless to act without their support. Varya wishes to enter a convent but does not; she is even incapable of acting on her own behalf in this instance. Similarly, Varya's passivity when it comes to her love for Yermolay Lopakhin (and his passivity toward it as well) leads to their inability to commit to one another in marriage. Both repeatedly say they have no objections to marriage, but neither proposes it, because Varya is held by social constraints and Lopakhin by his obsession with business. Mrs. Ranevsky tells Lopakhin to propose to Varya, but he fails to comply, even while he tells Mrs. Ranevsky: "I'm ready even now...Let's settle it at once and get it over. I don't feel I'll ever propose to her without you here." When brought together, Varya and Lopakhin remain inactive, exchanging only small talk. Lopakhin is called away and the moment is lost. Their inability to act destroys any hope of marriage.
Appearances and Reality
Mrs. Ranevsky and her family appear to be a wealthy family living on their estate. They continue to live just as they have for generations, keeping servants, throwing parties, and lending money to neighbors—even though they are nearly destitute. Their need to keep up appearances threatens their very existence. Gayev speaks of getting a job in a bank only when it becomes obvious that his financial situation is dire—this would have been unheard of in earlier times. He speaks badly of his sister, because she has been an "immoral woman" while living in Paris and asserts that her impropriety is what led their aunt, the Countess, to refuse to help them. This emphasis on appearance is important to the aristocracy, but in the changing social climate in which the play takes place, these things become less and less important. Gayev maintains the appearance to his family that he has the auction of the orchard under control, but in reality he has almost no control over the situation.
Choices and Consequences
For all characters in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, choices have their consequences. Free will is a powerful thing, and the Ranevsky family chooses to remain passive and allow the auction to happen with little interference. It is only Lopakhin, who chooses to buy the orchard when his advice goes unheeded, who eventually benefits from the sale. Similarly, Pishchik takes the opportunity to allow mining on his estate and benefits from this choice by making enough money to pay off his debtors. Chekhov places much of the blame for the sale of the orchard on those characters who are unable to make choices and act to save themselves.
The class conflicts in this play are illustrated best through the servants. Yasha is Firs's grandson, yet their wants and needs are far different. Yasha wishes to move up in the world, and this means taking the opportunity to return to Paris with Mrs. Ranevsky. Firs, on the other hand, wishes to return to the days before the liberation of the serfs. This difference is underscored by generational differences as well. Firs is more comfortable with the old social order, while Yasha yearns for a new one.
Dunyasha, Mrs. Ranevsky's maid, wishes to be a lady and to marry a wealthy man. She is free to dream, unlike her predecessors, who were locked in servitude. There is a new hope among the servant class that they could make money like Lopakhin, or save enough to buy a small home. Peter Trofimov comments on the sociological changes in Russia when he says to Anya "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.'' This passage underscores and explains much of the class conflicts in the play. The aristocracy refuse to treat men like Lopakhin or Trofimov as social equals, despite their (the aristocracy's) fall from power.
Lopakhin and Varya are in the middle of this class conflict. Lopakhin was born the child of serfs on the Ranevsky estate, and Varya's father was a serf. Lopakhin is a wealthy man who is in a better financial situation than the Ranevskys, yet they will never accept him as a social equal. They consider him a vulgar man who has no appreciation for tradition or beauty (he suggested building "vulgar" cottages on the pristine orchard). Varya was adopted by Mrs. Ranevsky, so she too is caught in the middle of the struggle by virtue of not being entirely a part of the aristocracy nor of the servant class.
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