The Cherry Orchard | Study Guide

Anton Chekhov

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The Cherry Orchard | Themes


Old World versus New World

Two worlds defined by differences in social class collide in The Cherry Orchard. The setting of the play, Lyubov Andreyevna's estate with its famous cherry orchard, represents the old world of aristocratic privilege. The play's characters embody the cultural and social crisis transforming Russia. The world of the upper classes is dying, and Lyubov Andreyevna and her brother, Gayev, watch helplessly as former peasants like Lopakhin rise from serfdom to gain power as businesspeople in the new, modern world.

Chekhov presents the forces of change as resourceful and unforgiving. He is sympathetic yet impatient with an aristocratic class that will not help itself as it faces its ruin from this inevitable change. Lopakhin, the rich former peasant descended from serfs, influences everyone's world in the play. He controls his own fate because he has worked to become a wealthy merchant. By offering Lyubov Andreyevna a way to keep the orchard by turning it into a money-making business, he also shows how he controls her fate and the fate of her class. Of course he literally controls Lyubov Andreyevna's future when he buys the estate, and it is in this exchange—the orchard passing from Lyubov Andreyevna to Lopakhin—that the old world succumbs to those who are now in power. Lopakhin is the emblem of a new world in which hard work, not birth into the upper classes, determines social status and power.

Talk versus Action

The theme of talk versus action illustrates class differences. Chekhov associates talk with the aristocracy. The leisured classes have time to talk and no need to act, because others—maids, valets, serfs—have always worked for them. Action is associated with peasants and the new, upwardly mobile middle and soon-to-be upper classes, represented by Lopakhin. The upper class, defined by empty talk, struggles against doers and workers like Lopakhin, whose actions are about to redefine their world.

Characters in the play are also largely defined by their movement, or lack thereof. Lopakhin and Varya both define themselves through their work and become agitated and uneasy when they are idle. At the end of the play Lopakhin sums up this attitude: "When I work for a long time without stopping, my mind is easier, and it seems to me that I, too, know why I exist. But how many are there in Russia ... who exist nobody knows why. Well, it doesn't matter, that's not what makes the wheels go round." Much as the peasant workers of the past supported their wealthy masters, so the new workers make the wheels of this new society go around.

Contrary to the workers are the talkers who also seem incapable of taking action. Gayev, for example, cannot keep quiet. Varya reminds him repeatedly, "Uncle dear, you talk too much." He seems unable to do anything else. He talks about plans to save the cherry orchard but takes no real action, and even when he is forced to get a job after the orchard is sold everyone knows he will not last long. "He won't stick it out," Lopakhin predicts, "he's too lazy." Lyubov Andreyevna expresses passionate feelings for the estate, and especially the cherry orchard, yet when pressed to act in order to save it she is unwilling or unable to move into a future she cannot or will not understand.

Trofimov is somewhere between these two positions. He talks, but unlike Lyubov or Gayev his speeches are full of big ideas, supportive of the working class, and critical of upper-class privilege. Trofimov is optimistic that the future will be better as social classes are rearranged: the top will fall and the bottom will rise. His comments are often perceptive and apt. Yet his passion for political change remains frozen in words. The "eternal student" is convinced that "mankind is advancing toward the highest truth, the highest happiness attainable on earth, and I am in the front ranks!" But when asked by Lopakhin if he will get there, Trofimov seems unsure of exactly how to make that happen and answers, "I'll either get there or I'll show the others the way to get there."

Chekhov is sympathetic, but not sentimental, toward his characters. They are neither all good nor all bad. They talk, they fail to act, they act in self-interest, they aspire to act, and they talk some more. Chekhov's view of empty philosophizing is summed up in Trofimov's comment to Lyubov Andreyevna: "We talked a long time yesterday, but we didn't get anywhere."

The Past

Chekhov does not present an either-or assessment of the past in The Cherry Orchard. The play does not portray the past as either good or bad. Instead the past has both positive and negative aspects for most of the characters.

Lyubov Andreyevna embodies this struggle to make sense of a past that is both beautiful and brutal. She is passionate about reclaiming the happy past of her childhood and memories of her beautiful cherry orchard. She is so deeply lodged in her personal history, in fact, that she cannot entertain a future that departs from her idealized memories. Yet Lyubov Andreyevna's past is also filled with tragedy: her husband's death, her young son's drowning, a bad love affair, and her financial woes. She alternates between joy and despair as she relives an earlier time in her home. "Nothing has changed," she exclaims when she arrives, but of course everything has changed.

Lopakhin seeks to escape his brutal past by working his way into a respectable future. Sometimes self-conscious about his peasant origins, Lopakhin remains aware of the forces that shaped him—his father and grandfather were serfs. He is fond of Lyubov Andreyevna and tries to help her, but when she will not act to save her estate he does not hesitate to take the cherry orchard for his own glory. Lopakhin's past and future combine in the cherry orchard.

Chekhov makes Trofimov the keeper of Russia's past and the herald of Russia's future. Trofimov reminds anyone who will listen of the brutality that built the class system, a system that is now eroding. He sees the cherry orchard not as a symbol of a charmed past but as an emblem of oppression. Like Lopakhin, Trofimov does not care about preserving the orchard. To Lopakhin the orchard is special because it is big (and a potential business opportunity). To Trofimov the orchard is something to be shed so a more egalitarian future can begin.

Firs, of course, dwells most resolutely in a past far removed from the play's present. His language and actions are born from a time before the serfs were free, yet his memory of this golden time fails. Firs remembers when the cherry orchard was a success yet cannot recall the recipe for the once famous dried cherries produced from its harvests. It's "forgotten," he admits, "nobody remembers." The line is a poignant foreshadowing of Firs's fate, as he, too, is eventually forgotten at the end of the play.

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