Literature Annotations


Chekhov, Anton P.
The Cherry Orchard


Genre Play (54 pp.)
KeywordsAbandonment, Aging, Catastrophe, Empathy, Family Relationships, Freedom, Human Worth, Loneliness, Love, Mother-Daughter Relationship, Society, Survival
Summary

Madame Ranevsky returns to her estate after five years in Paris, where she had fled after the accidental death of her young son. In the interim her brother and adopted daughter have been running the estate, which has gone hopelessly into debt, largely because of Madame Ranevsky's improvident life style. As she and her adolescent daughter Anya arrive, friends and retainers have gathered to greet them. Among these are Trofimov, her dead son's tutor and an ineffectual idealist; and Lopahin, a brilliantly successful businessman whose father had once been a serf on the Ranevsky estate.

The family's beloved cherry orchard, along with the house and the rest of the estate, are about to go on the auction block. Lopahin proposes a solution: break up the cherry orchard into building plots and lease them to city folks to build summer villas. This would generate an annual income of 25,000 rubles and, thus, solve all of Madame Ranevsky's financial problems. She refuses to consider cutting down the orchard. Her brother, Gaev, gravitates ineffectually around the problem, suggesting various harebrained schemes to raise money, but in the end he believes there is no solution: "Someone gets sick, you know, and the doctor suggests one thing after another, that means there's no cure . . . " (p. 346)

The auction occurs, and, lo and behold, Lopahin himself has purchased the estate with the intention of developing the property for summer villas. In the last act, as Madame Ranevsky and her family prepare to vacate the house, workmen hover in the background, ready to begin chopping down the orchard. Madame Ranevsky departs for Paris, and Lopahin leaves to pursue his business in the city. A much alluded-to liaison between Lopahin and Varya, the adopted daughter, dies on the vine, apparently because the businessman has neither the time nor inclination for romance. As the house is closed up, Firs, the senile 87-year-old servant, is inadvertently left behind.

Commentary

The Cherry Orchard is Chekhov's last play, written in 1903 and 1904 when he was obviously dying of tuberculosis. Like The Seagull (1895, see annotation), he labeled this work a "comedy in four acts." This accords with the ancient Greek conception, in which comedy is concerned with foibles in the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, while tragedy deals with great souls, elevated themes, and the workings of fate.

The uncertainty, irresolution, love, hope, idealism, pragmatism, moral weakness, yearning, self-deception, miscommunication, triumph, loss and suffering that characterize The Cherry Orchard certainly fit into this notion of comedy. What about the happy ending? Well, despite the fact that some of the characters seem destined for aborted dreams, Lopahin scores a financial coup, and a newly solvent Madame Ranevsky zips off to Paris (and to her profligate lover). Not bad for "real life."

The Cherry Orchard presents a microcosm of Chekhov's world. You have the ancient serf who yearns for the old regime (Firs);the profligate and ineffectual landowners (Madame Ranevsky, Gaev, Semyonov-Pishtchik) landowners, unable to cope with the changing world; the idealistic but brittle intellectual (Trofimov); and, finally, the New Man (Lopahin), whose pragmatism and energy allow him to influence events, rather than being crushed by them.

Among this cast of characters, Chekhov, the physician and public health worker, most closely resembles Lopahin, who observes, "I get up at five and work from morning to night. . . I see lots of people, see what they're like. And you just try to get anything accomplished: you'll see how few decent, honest people there really are." (p. 358)

Meanwhile, Trofimov represents the late 19th century Russian intellectuals who spout theories, but have no intention of accomplishing them, "We have to seek out the truth, you know. Most of the people in this country aren't working toward anything. . . They certainly don't do much." (p. 357) [This from a man who has just spent five years lolling around, sponging off the Ranevsky family.]

SourceThe Plays of Anton Chekhov
PublisherHarperCollins
Edition1997
EditorsPaul Schmidt
Place PublishedNew York
Alternate SourceFour Great Plays by Chekhov
Alternate PublisherBantam
Alternate Edition1968
Place PublishedNew York
MiscellaneousTranslated from the Russian by Paul Schmidt
Annotated by Coulehan, Jack
Date of Entry 08/14/01
Last Revised 08/29/01