“The Cherry Orchard” and changing social order

In his work “The Cherry Orchard”, Anton Chekhov illustrates a population divided by a desire to cling to the Tsar’s final vestiges of power and a desire to see social orders reformed to accommodate the emergence of a new middle class.

The Liberation and the decline of the Tsar’s power in Russia allowed for the reordering of social power and structures. As Lophakin explains, “until a little while ago there had been nothing but gentry and peasants in the village, now villa residents have made their appearance.” These “villa residents” represent the new middle class – peasants who were no longer bound to their masters or who – like Lophakin – have become landowners and secured their own autonomy. Members of the old wealthy class, such as Madame Renevsky, are not ready to face social reordering: Madame’s reluctance to sell her cherry orchard to make room for members of the middle class mirrors the reluctance of the gentry to facilitate changes in social structures, which necessitate a redistribution of power. Madame Ranevsky’s cherry orchard symbolizes the power of the gentry and the Tsar, and without it, “ [her] life has no meaning.” Her daughters, Barbara and Anya, are also members of the gentry but have more complex attitudes towards the potential for social change. Having lived abroad, Anya is unsure of her place in Russian social order, a fact that is represented in her ambivalence towards the orchard: she confides to Lophakin that she does not love it as much as she used to.

Madame’s servants represent the members of Russian society who, after the Liberation and the end of serfdom, are unsure of their places a social order that doesn’t account for them.  As Charlotte laments “who I am, or why I exist, is a mystery.” Firs, the oldest servant, frequently invokes old traditions and laments the liberation; he is one of the few characters who represents the traditional peasant class. The others – including Lophakin, Trophimof, and Ephikhodof, – are more eager to see what further changes the Liberation bring about.  Even Lophakin, a former peasant who has become a wealthy landowner, does not find solidarity with members of the upper class. He cannot understand Madame’s attachment to her orchard, nor can divorce himself from his past as a peasant and share in their frivolity and wastefulness. By buying and destroying the orchard, Lophakin made room for the villa owners, and thus, the new middle class. Indeed, it was people like Lophakin – those who were not peasants, not gentry, but members of a new and trepidatious middle class – who led the revolution and secured a place for themselves in the social order.

 

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