Sustainability in The Cherry Orchard

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.

The Cherry Orchard: A Modern Take

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.