The Cherry Orchard
In 1861, Russian Tsar Alexander II emancipated the serfs. This act, called the Liberation, ended a form of servitude that emulated the feudal system of people belonging to the land that dated back to medieval times. In the aftermath of Liberation, some of the aristocracy continued to flourish while others perished and some of the hardest working serfs, in turn, rose through their hard work to the highest rungs of the social ladder. Although Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard forty years after this historic event, the fallout, so to speak, from this monumental shift was still being felt.
This new social paradigm can be observed in The Cherry Orchard. Madame Ranevsky, who has failed to manage her cherry orchard estate and squandered her money on an unfaithful Parisian lover, has fallen on hard times. Her mortgage payment is due and she does not have the funds to cover the payment. Her former serf Lopakhin, a shrewd businessman, tells her she must cut down the cherry orchard and build villas for the newly emerging middle class. However, unable to change her way of thinking, she continues to act the aristocrat to the end and thus loses her estate to her former serf Lopakhin.
The liberation of Russia's serfs by Tsar Nicholas II serves as the historical background for The Cherry Orchard. The Liberation freed millions of people who otherwise would have lived out lives of servitude on Russian estates with no opportunity for freedom. Seemingly then it would seem that everyone in Russia, thirty years after Liberation, would have become accustomed to freedom or liberty with opportunities for mobility and social advancement. Yet, many of Chekhov's characters seem to be frozen or inert-in other words, not free at all. In regards to freedom, they fall into two groups: those who are free and positively approach the future and those who are imprisoned in the past.
First, there is no doubt that Trophimof, the play's idealist, feels free. Indeed, he refuses Lopakhin's offer of money because after all he "a free man; nothing that you value . . . has the smallest power over me" (43). Similarly, although Anna has been brought up amidst aristocratic splendor, she has a mind of her own and can see how her spendthrift mother tosses away money. Anna desires an education and a new future and her act of leaving the estate ("goodbye old house, goodbye old life") with Trophimof casts her as a free spirit. There is no doubt about Lopakhin who has utilized the Liberation to move up rapidly through the social ranks. Even Dunyasha the young servant has moved socially upward by adopting lady-like mannerisms, and the aristocrat Gayef has become a banker and seems happier at the end of the play. Although a landowner, Pishtchik at first seems to be imprisoned by his mortgage but he changes after coming into money and actually pays back money to Madame Ranevsky.
On the other hand, Madame Ranevsky remains frozen, imprisoned in time and unable to move forward. She cannot accept that she has lost her money, her estate, indeed her way of life. Even at the end she gives her purse away to her departing peasants. She will return to Paris to an abusive lover sure to leave her penniless. Barbara also seems to be unable to move, forced to take a job she doesn't want, and resigned to hard work because she doesn't have money. Similarly, Charlotte will retain her role as governess because she is limited by financial restraint: "don't forget to get me a new place, please. I can't do without it" (44). More than anyone, Firs the elderly former serf has never been liberated and he will die forgotten and alone.
The Cherry Orchard
Top Ten Quotes
1."You are too refined.you should remember your place." (p. 2)
Lopakhin, the former serf now turned landowner, treats the nervous young servant Dunyasha first as familiar friend by confiding in her and then as an upstart servant who should know her place. This illustrates the great social change inherent in Russia's newfound class mobility.
2. "My mistress has come home; at last I've seen her. Now I'm ready to die." (p. 6)
Firs, the aging man who spent most of his life as a serf, continues to think like one. He has remained a serf in his mind, waiting longingly for six years for the return of his mistress Madame Ranevsky from Paris. He represents the old way of living in feudal Russia.
3. "In all my life I never met anyone so frivolous as you two, so crazy and unbusinesslike. I tell you in plain Russian your property is going to be sold and you don't seem to understand what I say." (p. 20)
Madame Ranevsky and her brother Gayef insist they have written to their aunt to send them money but Lopakhin is shocked to find how little they have requested and insists such a small amount will never be enough to make the mortgage payment. This quote demonstrates how out of touch the aristocracy is while the former serf Lopakhin has a much clearer grasp of contemporary economics.
4. "Perhaps man has a hundred senses, and when he dies the five senses that we know perish with him, and the other ninety-five remain alive . . . Everything that is unattainable for us now will one day be near and clear . . . But we must work." (p. 23)
Trophimof the tutor expresses a philosophy of idealism to Lopakhin, Madame Ranevsky, Anya and Gayef in his argument that the days of the aristocracy are over and now all classes must work.
5. "All you ancestors were serf owners, owners of living souls. Do not human spirits look out at you from every leaf and stem?" (p. 27)
Anya tells Trophimof that he has caused her to no longer love the cherry orchard by making her realize that despite its beauty, it is the product of years of backbreaking labor by unpaid serfs. Her consciousness has been raised and she realizes that she can no longer live a life of luxury served by others but must go out into the world and work herself.
6. "A hungry dog believes in nothing but meat." (p. 28)
Pishtchik says this to Trophimof at the beginning of Act III. He is agreeing with Trophimof who has explained how much Pishtchik could have achieved had he not constantly felt the necessity to spend his time scrounging for money to pay off his loans.
7. "You look boldly ahead; isn't it only that you don't see or divine anything terrible in the future; because life is still hidden from your young eyes." (p. 32)
Madame Ranevsky says this to the philosopher and perpetual student Trophimof after he insists that she face up to reality. She should have, he insists, taken action to ward off financial disaster by selling the cherry orchard while she attempts to make him understand how much the property means to her.
8. "My love is like a stone tied round my neck; it's dragging me down to the bottom; but I love my stone. I can't live without it." (p. 33)
Madame Ranevsky says this to Trophimof after he attempts to get her to change her mind about returning to her abusive Parisian lover. He himself, he insists, is above love while she regrettably says she is beneath love.
9. "What's the use of talking? You can see for yourself that this is a barbarous country; the people have no morals; and the boredom!" (p. 35)
Yasha, the self-serving servant complains about his Russian homeland. Since he has seen Paris, he finds Russia intolerable and will use all of his wiles to convince Madame Ranevsky to take him back to Paris with her.
10. "Life has gone by as if I never lived" (p. 49)
Firs mutters this during the last scene of the play where he lies ill after all have abandoned him. After a life of servile and selfless devotion, his "betters" have left him behind. Firs' death represents the real end of the feudal Russian way of life.
The Cherry Orchard
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov is considered one of Russia's most important writers as well as one of the world's greatest playwrights. He was born on January 17, 1860, in Taganrog, a small seaport town in Southern Russia. His father was a grocer, his grandfather a serf who had bought his own freedom. His mother, Yevgenia Morozov, was the daughter of a cloth merchant. The author was only one year old when Czar Nicholas II freed Russia's serfs. This historic event, generally referred to as the Liberation, plays a central role in many of Chekhov's writings, including The Cherry Orchard.
After his father was forced to declare bankruptcy, the family moved to Moscow, which presented young Chekhov with the opportunity to gain a good education. He began attending medical school at the University of Moscow when he was twenty years old and while there began to publish humorous articles for newspapers and magazines in an effort to alleviate his family's financial difficulties. Deeply influenced by famous novelist and short story writer Tolstoy, at this time Chekhov also began to write short stories. In time he became a master of this literary genre.
Chekhov graduated from medical school in 1884 and spent the rest of his life engaged in medicine as well as writing. In 1888, Chekhov wrote the popular short story "The Bear" and two years later he published "The Wedding." In 1887, he wrote "The Wood Demon," which was not well received critically but which in time he would rewrite as the enormously popular Uncle Vanya.
For much of his life, Chekhov suffered from bad health and was forced to travel to more healthful climates, such places as Singapore, India, Ceylon, and Egypt among them. He especially enjoyed France and utilized the opportunity to study other literary forms in depth, especially French theatre, aspects of which he incorporated into his own work. By the turn of the century Chekhov had authored four plays which were to bring him lasting repute: The Sea Gull in 1896, Uncle Vanya that same year, The Three Sisters in 1901, and The Cherry Orchard, his last play. The Cherry Orchard was staged in Moscow on his birthday, January 17, 1904, and featured his wife Olga Knipper, whom he had married in 1901, in the leading role. Six months later, Chekhov died in Germany.
In addition to his dramatic works, Chekhov is highly regarded for his short stories which also combine comedy and tragedy. In addition, he is greatly admired for his use of ordinary conversations and verbal pauses to reveal reality in inconsequential words and everyday life.
Oftentimes, his characters, like those in The Cherry Orchard, are provincial aristocratic landowners of the era before the Russian Liberation who are unable to take action in times of crisis. In addition, Chekhov's intermingling of the comic and tragic genres characterizes him as one of the greatest playwrights of all time. In addition, he remains highly regarded for his technique, which has come to be called "indirect action." This technique emphasizes the off-stage action which the audience never sees but hears about from the onstage characters.
1. Discuss the effect of Liberation on Chekhov's characters Lopakhin and Firs.
Both Lopakhin and Firs were born on the cherry orchard estate as serfs and meant to spend their lives in the unpaid service of Madame Ranevsky's family. However, with the enactment of the Liberation in 1865 by Czar Nicholas II, the lives of both men, which seemed so predestined at birth, changed drastically. However, both men reacted very differently to the new social system. Lopakhin views the Liberation as an opportunity to create a better life. He takes action, working day and night to advance socially and economically. He succeeds, much to everyone's amazement, by becoming the owner of the cherry orchard estate and usurping the power of his former mistress, the aristocrat Madame Ranevsky. Lopakhin says in jubilation, "if only my father and grandfather could rise from their graves and see the whole affair" (38).
On the other hand, the elderly Firs fails to hear the call to action. He pays no heed at all to the Liberation and chooses instead to live his life passively as if freedom had never occurred. He shuffles around, waiting on people who generally take him for granted as they would a piece of the furniture. While he had every opportunity to leave the estate on which he was born, he remains waiting for five years for his mistress Madame Ranevsky to return from Paris. He is so cemented into the feudal system of serfdom that when Madame Ranevsky asks what he will do after the cherry orchard has been sold he simply he tells her, "wherever you tell me there I'll go" (35). Hardly surprisingly, Firs is overlooked and dies alone, a remnant of the past in a locked house after the family leaves the estate.
2. Critics argue that some of Chekhov's characters are affected by blindness. Consider the character Madame Ranevsky in this regard and agree or disagree.
As a character, Madame Ranevsky is metaphorically blind and remains blind throughout the play and thus fails to grow. She grew up in the lap of luxury, so to speak, on the Russian cherry orchard estate surrounded by serfs who would carry out her slightest whim. When she returns from Paris having left an abusive lover, she arrives believing that time has stood still and under the assumption that since her girlhood home belongs to her that nothing has changed. But everything has changed. It is she who has remained the same.
While she has been gone, her former serf Lopakhin, who as a child was not even permitted into the estate kitchen, has used his wits to become a successful businessman, so successful in fact that he attempts to convince Madame Ranevsky as to the necessity to change: sell the cherry orchard for the construction of villas-or perish. However, although she listens to Lopakhin she cannot accept what he has to say. Indeed, she cannot even consider cutting down the cherry orchard because she has constructed the idea that destroying the orchard would in effect be suicide. In her blindness, she fails to take any action and Lopakhin steps in to take over as master of the cherry orchard, leaving her to return to Paris to a bleak future. Her blindness represents the blindness of all those unwilling to accept the new Russia where all the people and not just the aristocrats have the chance to live free and be successful.
3. Some readers read Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard as a comedy while some read it as a tragedy. Address this duality.
Chekhov manages to combine the genres of comedy and tragedy. The playwright originally wrote The Cherry Orchard play as a comedy and was aghast the first time he saw it staged because the director had produced it as a tragedy. Scholars have argued about this duality and there is now general agreement that the play cleverly mixes comedy and tragedy. Readers, or viewers for that matter, cannot help but find certain sections of the play nothing but slapstick. For instance, when Trophimof walks out after Madame Ranevsky calls him a freak for not having a mistress, a clattering noise is heard off stage, Barbara screams and Anya runs in to declare "Peter's tumbled downstairs" (33). And some of the main characters also display great humor. For instance, Gayef inanely interjects comments about billiards into everyday conversation. Madame Ranevsky says she can't afford to pay her mortgage and almost immediately loans her neighbor Pishtchik money to pay his own mortgage. So, while the content of the play is serious, many times the tragic aspect is alleviated by the inclusion of comedy.
In Act III, the simultaneous comedy/tragedy is also apparent. While the most tragic events occur indirectly off stage-the sale of the cherry orchard-the atmosphere at the estate onstage is farcical, high comedy as in the background musicians play. While they await news of the sale of the cherry orchard, Barbara, worried about paying the musicians, scolds Trophimof and Pishtchik for getting drunk and the young servant Dunyasha for dancing like a guest. Characters are falling down, getting drunk, running around, dancing and playing billiards in a very circus-like atmosphere with Charlotte even performing magic tricks, until Lopakhin, who has no intention of proposing to Barbara, returns to tell them the tragic news-the cherry orchard, which has been in the family for hundreds of years, will be chopped down to make way for villas. But even the villain Lopakhin is humorous by being socially so ill at ease and misquoting Shakespeare.
4. How does the character Trophimof function in The Cherry Orchard?
Trophimof is the former tutor of Madame Ranevsky's young son Grisha whose death through drowning resulted in the family's flight to France. For some unknown reason, Trophimof has remained on the family estate and is still in residence when Madame Ranevsky returns. Everyone makes fun of him for being "the perpetual student," except Anya who takes an immediate liking to him. Madame Ranevsky harshly criticizes him by telling him that at his age he should have a mistress. So, while on the surface it might appear that Trophimof is a comic figure, and he certainly is comical when he falls down the stairs, on the other hand Trophimof is an idealist and has the ability see what is going on, unlike Madame Ranevsky, who remains blind to reality. He has the ability to stand back and look to the future with the knowledge that people in the new Russia are doomed unless they change with the times. For instance, Trophimof argues with the "villain" Lopakhin about his means of accruing wealth: "you are a rich man; you will soon be a millionaire . . . just like a beast of prey" (23). In this regard, he makes the reader aware that Lopakhin has something up his sleeve as he befriends Madame Ranevsky. Trophimof optimistically looks to the future: "mankind marches forward, perfecting its strength" and argues that change is inevitable (24). He lectures the others that if they don't change with the times, their lives will end in disaster. In other words, he encourages them to take action, work hard and not remain passive: "everything that is unattainable for us now will one day be near and clear; but we must work" (24).
5. What role does memory and the past play in The Cherry Orchard?
Throughout The Cherry Orchard characters struggle with remembering their past. In an effort to forget her young son Grisha's death, Madame Ranevsky flees Russia for Paris and meets a man who steals her money, abuses her and only returns to Russia when he leaves her for another woman. However, she seems happy to be home until memories of her son flood her mind after she meets his tutor Trophimof who has remained on the estate. Madame Ranevsky's former serf Lopakhin also suffers from difficult memories from his early life as a serf and feels ill at ease at the new social level he has managed to achieve. In addition, Trophimof preaches that all of Russia should forget the past before the Russian Liberation which freed the serfs, to be able to live a bright future. He believes that the people, especially the aristocrats, should not look back and romanticize the past. They should be willing to put these memories of the past aside and embrace the possibilities of a bright future. Trophimof is able to help Madame Ranevsky's young daughter Anya accomplish this by pointing out to her that the glorious and enormous cherry orchard estate where she grew up in the lap of luxury came about as a result of painful unpaid human labor: "all your ancestors were serf owners, owners of living souls.
Do not human spirits look out at you from every leaf and stem?" (27). When Anya realizes the true cost of the cherry orchard, she no longer feels attached and is willing to leave and start a new life. Alas, her mother Madame Ranevsky is unable to forget the past. She returns to Paris doomed to a sad life that will end in poverty. The elderly servant Firs, who has all along been unwilling to forget the past (even though he goes around the estate muttering about his faulty memory), ironically dies forgotten by all."