In Anton Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard”, social, economic, and environmental themes of sustainability are brought up throughout the plot-line. These themes mainly revolve around the character of Madame Ranevsky, the owner of an estate with a cherry orchard. This gigantic orchard once had a fruitful history but has now become more of a burden for Ranevsky. Ranevsky has a history of running away from situations in her life. For example, after her husband and child die within a month of one another, Ranevsky runs away to Paris. While in Paris, she becomes romantically involved with a man, but is unable to sustain this relationship. She ignored the dysfunction, trying to escape by drinking poison. Another aspect of her life Ranevsky could not sustain was her estate. She was in debt but tried escaping this financial encumbrance by simply acting as though the problem did not exist. By fleeing from the emotional chaos in her relationships and family losses and not facing her debts, Ranevsky’s life was not sustainable. These aspects tore her life apart and left her with no choice but to sell the estate. When Lopakhin bought the estate, he carried out his plan of cutting down the orchard and building cottages for profit. His construction plan, the opposite of environmental sustainability, was the result of Ranevsky’s lack of social and monetary sustainability.
While reading Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard I found examples of the many types of struggles Russia would face in the 20th Century. There were so many seemingly direct allusions to these struggles that when I remembered the play was written in 1904, I was shocked. Many of these foreshadows are related to sustainability, and The Cherry Orchard touches on sustainability in multiple ways: preserving the environment, maintaining economic prosperity and keeping old traditions and ways of life alive.
Right away the family is facing the critical choice of whether to auction off their family cherry orchard and leave their home or create a development of summer villas to rent out to vacationers. The first option would leave them debt-free but homeless; the second would essentially keep them in their home, but the beloved cherry orchard would be destroyed. The essence of the problem is one that the future Soviet Union would know well: sacrificing the environment to continue gaining economically. Madame Ranevsky resisted this idea of land parcels and cottages through the entire play, however in the end the wealthy neighbor Lopakhin bought the property with the intention of cutting down the orchard and building villas. This symbolized the transition from focusing on the past to looking towards the future, but also underscored the class tensions present in the story.
The undercurrents of animosity between the wealthy and the lower class characters were evident in the relationship between Madame Ranevsky and Lopakhin, son of a serf. Her relationship with Trophimof was also fluctuating, particularly in Act 3 when she gives him a hard time for his idealized thinking yet limited accomplishments. 20th Century Russia will be characterized by Marxism and the idea of class struggles. Chekhov gives glimpses of how the current system will prove to be unsustainable for the future, evolving Russia.
Trophimof is the true voice of the future Russia in the play, making grand speeches on the laziness of the educated and how they must work harder if Russia is to grow stronger and attain all that it wants. He predicts the future of mankind as a march towards truth and happiness, free from the restrictions of property and money. The overall theme of the play could be consolidated into the theme of past versus future. Different characters represent different times, and through the dialogue the reader can ascertain characters’ opinions on matters such as the changing importance of property, the emerging middle class, the industrialization and evolution of Russia’s economy and the future of the class system.
Anton Chekhov’s drama The Cherry Orchard focuses on a common motif that is often seen today: the idea of someone “selling out” their land and the environmental vs economic question it presents. Recently, I watched the movie The Descendants and it’s amusing to see how much the movie, or the author of the book the movie was based on (Kaui Hart Hemmings) consciously or subconsciously borrowed from Chekhov. Yes, the movie took place in Hawaii and not Russia, and no, there were no fatal boating accidents in The Cherry Orchard. But the theme of a family facing the dilemma of selling land that has been in the family for centuries is exactly the same.
The theme centers around this: a family possesses a large amount of valuable land that has belonged to their family for centuries. The land is untouched and home to plants and wildlife. The family comes across some kind of financial difficulty. A rich person (in modern times, usually some sort of real estate developer or a CEO) offers to buy the land, promising a huge sum of money. The family then faces the dilemma of whether or not to sell the land.
In The Cherry Orchard, Madame Ranevsky, who is deeply in debt, ultimately decides to sell the land to the wealthy Lopakhin. She, her daughters, and her servants, leave the land and begin their lives anew. The exception is the old manservant, Firs, who symbolically dies just as the ax begins to chop down the first trees.
In The Descendants, the proprietor of the land, Matt King, ultimately decides not to sell, much to the anger of his cousins. This change could be due to the fact that Hemmings, as a modern day author, was more aware of environmental responsibilities than Chekhov was.
The thing that struck me the most about The Cherry Orchard was how universal and relevant is still is to modern life. It can be compared to a George Clooney movie, as well as events that are happening in many of our own communities. In my opinion, that is why Chekhov is considered one of western literature’s finest: his ideas are still relatable to modern audiences.
On reading this piece I was immediately struck by how apparently the characters portray the social and political groups present in the transitional Soviet state. Most noticeable were the roles of Madame Ranevsky and Lopakin. Reading the interactions between the ex-bourgeoisie and the ex-serf related to the Communist conflict in Russia where those that felt oppressed, that felt like they had to take retribution, did so by assuming the property of the bourgeoisie and their status. These characters’ interests (Ranevsky’s in the orchard and Lopakin’s in the tenement buildings) also reflect the interests of the combating classes of the time (Soviet Utilitarianism and Bourgeois Aestheticism).
In the context of the Russian country, this social mobility is in conflict with the legal stratified order, the soslovie. To maintain the established legal order would conflict with the reality of changing social norms. The classes that held social responsibilities, such as the clergy and the nobility, have been upturned by the social revolutions underway in Russia and this instability is eventually through the Soviet revolution.
The overwhelming turn towards utilitarianism and rationalism also contradict the nobility’s fascination with aesthetic and cultural value. As many of those born from the peasantry have come into economic power, they take their workers’ mentality and apply it to their surroundings. The desire to make work and life easier on their neighbors is taken from the era of serfdom. At this time a great majority of citizens were born of the working class, with very few from the nobility, contributing to a loss of respect toward “noble” ideas and practices. This is most apparently expressed through Ranevsky’s desire to hold the land for aesthetic value instead of utilizing it as property for the wealthy peasantry. As the wealthy peasantry grows, so will the demand on her land. Follwing this pattern, she will eventually be forced off the land or, as the play concludes, it is bought, reluctantly, from her.
As I read through Cherry Orchard I noticed an interesting relationship developing between the characters. I think that many of the behaviors that the characters exhibit the aristocratic decline that was occurring while Chekhov was writing.
In most interactions between aristocrats and their servants, you would expect there to be a sense of supremacy among the elite. However, the servants, such as Dunyasha, seem to have a certain amount of status in the household. One such example of this would be the informality that Dunyasha shows when she greets Anya upon her arrival in the first scene. Dunyasha immediately says that she has something to tell her that cant wait another minute. Although Anya doesnt appear to be interested in Dunyasha’s problem, she still allows her to talk. This familiarity between the classes shows the breakdown of the social system and the beginnings of the middle class.
However, Madame Ranevsky’s behavior is the best representation fo the coming change in the social system. Ranevsky was born in a period when her family’s wealth was maintained by their name as they would always be held above the peasants. However, in this new system, Ravensky’s wealth has quickly been depleted as she continues to waste her money on pointless things. Throughout the play, Ranevsky never learns her lesson, eventually giving her money away to a passing drunkard. Ranevsky then refuses to sell the orchard for villas and is forced to auction it off. Lopakhin, a peasant made noble, buys the property from the family and proceeds to chop the orchard down. This interaction is a perfect representation of how the middle class is overcoming the aristocrats as the orchard is symbolic of the power of the upper class. In cutting it down, Lopakhin asserts his dominance over the failing aristocrats.
Cherry Orchard is an excellent example of how the old and the new have to learn to coexist as society changes. Lopakhin was able to adapt to the new system and gain massive amounts of wealth for himself, while Madame Ranevsky was unable to change her ways and fell prey to the new social system.
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.
The characters in the Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov demonstrate the changing relationship among social classes during the late tsarist period in Russia. The power of the aristocracy was shrinking, while at the same time, members of the peasantry were rising to form a new middle class.
Madame Lyubov Andreyevna,her brother Gayev, and neighbor Simeonov-Pishchik are all members of the old aristocracy, unable to transition to a society where status no longer guarantees wealth. Madame Ranevskaya’s daughter Anya fits into this group as well as a result of her upbringing, but perhaps due to her age she is in some ways able to see a way to function in a new society that is not based on titles.
Dunyasha, Yepikhodov, Charlotta Ivanovna, Yasha, and Firs all fall into the lower class of servants, but which would also include peasants, which have always depended on working for a noble. Firs and Yashastand at two different ends, due to their age. Firs is still trying to process the meaning of his status as a free person, which he thoroughly rejects, whereas Yasha looks forward to the opportunity to travel with Lyubov Andreyevna as a almost a companion rather than a servant.
Petya Trofimov, Lopakhin, and Varya, based on their understanding that work is necessary to survive and grow, do not fit with the aristocracy, but their self–reliance also sets them apart from the aristocracy. However, each still partly identifies with the social group they came from, though they no longer belong to it based on measures of wealth or education. The middle class in particular faced the problem of defining their role in society, as there was no precedent from earlier history. In addition, growing social mobility further complicated things, as many members of this new group came from poorer backgrounds and but through education or business success were able to gain higher social status. What is interesting is that none of them seem to get along with each other. Lopakhin thinks that Trofimov reads too much, Trofimov thinks that Varya is bossy, and Varya cannot stand the idea of marrying Lopakhin. Despite this, their interactions with each other are not always camaraderous, even though in actuality, they have the most in common.