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.
The theme of sustainability in The Cherry Orchard is that of being economically equitable and viable. The inhabitants of the estate are neither of these things and therefore are not living a sustainable life. The Ranevsky family is bankrupt, struggling to pay their mortgage, and yet they spend money on items they do not need. The cherry orchard has been part of the Ranevsky estate for over a century, so the family does not wish to sell it, but they have few other options. One option is to cut down the orchard and sell the land to make villas, but Madame Ranevsky won’t allow such a thing to happen to the orchard.
However, Madame Ranevsky shouldn’t have such sway over the future of the estate, because she hasn’t lived there in 6 years. After her husband passed away and her son died in an accident within the same month, she fled the estate in grief, ending up in Paris with a new lover. Her younger daughter Anya is returning with her from Paris at the start of the play, making sure her mother has some part in the future of the orchard as it is about to be sold to pay off their debts. Madame Ranevsky continues to spend money carelessly and refuses to make a plan for the orchard. She throws parties and gives alms to beggars while her own servants have only nuts to eat. Her lack of economic viability is a key factor in the downfall of the estate and its lack of sustainability. Had she focussed on the future, instead of fearing change, she could have married her daughters to rich noblemen or sold the land to make villas. Instead of dealing with her debts, she lets her brother auction for the orchard, and he loses due to lack of funds. A neighbor buys the land to make into villas, and the last scene is of the trees being cut down because the Ranevsky family wasn’t economically viable.
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.
The nobles in The Cherry Orchard are Anya, Madame Ranevsky, Barbara, Gayef, and Pishticik. The nobility of the play has fallen drastically, the two families out of money but trying to cling on to a previous way of life in the wake of change. Anya and Barbara are the two nobles that seem to recognize and accept the new order. Anya is fascinated by the ideas of Peter and Barbara acknowledges her affection for Lopkhin despite his family history.
Firs, Yasha, Dunyasha, and are all peasants, but have different outlooks on change of social construction. When the Liberation occurred, Firs refused to leave his master and laments the complexity of social interaction now that the peasants are freed from their masters, calling the Liberation a “great misfortune” (25). Yasha is an opposition to Firs because he has travelled the continent and seen how to live in civilized freedom, which is better than the Russian “barbarism.”
Lopakhin, Trophimof, and Ephikhodof all represent the emerging class of “others” at the end of tsarist Russia because they are those born of humble origins who raised their status through education. Lopakhin’s father was a serf of the estate and now his son is a wealthy landowner in his own right, even suggested to be married to the daughter of a noblewoman. This new class seeks some kind of personal retribution for the enslavement of their ancestors by replacing the symbols of noble authority, like the cherry orchard, with symbols of the middle class, such as the villas.
In The Cherry Orchard, wood represents to the characters a connection with past memory and the grandeur of an older time. Gayef discovers that a cupboard in the home is over a hundred years old and proceeds to laud it for upholding “the courage of succeeding generations” and “faith in a better future” as well as the riches of the past (10). This characterization of the cupboard could be interpreted as a reflection of the glory of tsarist Russia contrasted against its place in the modernizing world in which it exists. It is an attempt of the nobles to hold on to their legacy.
The cherry orchard itself serves the same purpose. It brings back memories of the estate when it was in its prime, contrasting with the current state of the family that has squandered the money. The act of destroying the orchard is reminiscent of the destruction of the old social structure, particularly since it is carried out by a man of the new middling class that rose from a family of peasants to become a wealthy neighbor of the Ranevsky estate. Despite his age and connection to the past, Firs acknowledges the idea because no one alive knows how to make they cherry jam, and therefore it cannot provide the economic support of its past. As she comes to understand the changing social climate through her relationship with Trophimof, Anya remarks that she no longer loved the orchard as she once did, in effect symbolizing her transition from old to new ways of thinking. The wood of the orchard contains “human spirits” that were contained in the estate during the time of serfs, and the new freedom offered to humans is echoed through the orchard’s path. The suffering that Madame Ranevsky experiences at the thought of the orchard being destroyed is a way to “redeem the past” in the mind of Trophimof (27).