The play’s dominant theme is social change. We are made aware of this from the very opening in the conversation between Lopakhin, the self-made man, and Dunyasha, the maid with pretensions to gentility. Nearly every character is associated to some degree with social ambiguity. Lyubov Andreyevna herself has lowered her status through marriage—her brother tells us at the end of Act I that she had married someone who was not a nobleman. Her elder daughter, Varya is adopted and is of peasant or lower class origin as she tells Lopakhin in Act II. In effect, Varya seems more like a housekeeper than a daughter of the house. She is characterized in Chekhov’s stage directions by her keys, (i.e., housekeeper, and during her quarrel with Yepichodov in Act III, she seems mortally offended by the reference of this estate clerk to her ‘superiors’. Most telling of all, she always addresses her mother and uncle by the polite form of ’you’ (vy), whereas the true daughter Anya addresses them in the familiar form (ty).
Anya herself will turn her back on the estate and the old life, under the influence of Trofimov, who, although his own father was a drug store owner, is comically referred to as a “shabby gentleman”. The real gentry, as exemplified by Lyubov Andreyevna, her brother Gayev and the neighbour Simeonov—Pishchik, are chronically short of money. The Gayev family estate will be sold, and Gayev himself will be offered a job in a bank.
Times are obviously changing. The younger servants, Yasha and Dunyasha, give themselves airs and ape their masters. Dunyasha dances at the ball in Act III as though she were a guest, and indeed the real guests are of low social status. Firs comments: ‘We used to have generals, barons and admirals dancing at our balls, but now we send for the post-office clerk and the station-master, and even they don’t come too willingly.’ The presence of such figures is in itself significant—they represent the modern world of rapid communication: the railway (newly built) and the telegraph (Lyubov Andreyevna is constantly being summoned back by telegram to her lover in Paris). Thus Lyubov Andreyevna’s ball not only acknowledges social change, it invites the new forces which are disrupting the old way of life.
Lopakhin, the self-made merchant of peasant origin, stands at the centre of this social change. He is the bridge between the old world and the new. The ambiguity of his social position is nicely judged; through his money he is the equal of the masters yet he is also aware of his relationship to the lower orders. Thus on taking his leave in Act I he kisses the hand of Lyubov Andreyevna, embraces the nobleman Pishchik, but does not forget to shake hands with the servants Yasha and Firs. Lopakhin merely says a polite farewell to Gayev, but this is understandable given Gayev’s rather squeamish hostility to this upstart who is destined to replace him as owner of the estate.
The loss of a dacha is one of the first things we learn about Lyubov Andreyevna. As Anya tells us: “She has already sold her dacha near Mentone. She has nothing left, nothing.” It is, therefore, ironic that later in the same act Lopakhin should tell her of the transformation being effected in the Russian countryside because of the hunger for dachas among the new rising force of the urban middle class. Up to now in the countryside there have been only masters and peasants, but now dacha owners have appeared as well. Every town, even the smallest, is surrounded by dachas. Lopakhin rubs salt into the wound by suggesting that the Gayev estate should undergo the same fate.
Social change in Russian literature is often presented as a conflict between generations. Turgenev’s Fathers and Children is perhaps the best known example, and the novel is typical in that it presents the struggle as one of ideas, which are identified by specific decades of the nineteenth century: it is the struggle of the “men of the sixties” against the “men of the forties”. This theme, in essence the theme of the Russian intelligentsia, is also present in The Cherry Orchard. Gayev, who is of the generation of the ‘fathers’ in the play, identifies himself towards the end of Act I as a ‘man of the eighties’.
Gayev: I’m a man of the eighties! No one pays tribute to those days, but I still went through plenty in life for my convictions, I can tell you I did. The peasant has reason to love me. You must get to know the peasant, I say. You must know how to...
At this point he is shut up by a representative of the ‘children’, his niece Anya. Gayev is always silenced when he makes such speeches; the others find it embarrassing—it is more rhetoric. In fact words are the only mark of his claim to belong to the intelligentsia of the 1880s. When he says that no one praises that period, he is right. Alexander II had been assassinated in 1881 and the event had ushered in a period of great repression in Russian political and intellectual life. It was a time when all ideas and actions were suspect, a time of “petty deeds”. Intellectually it was largely a cowed and demoralized generation, so that for Gayev to suggest that he has suffered for his convictions as a “man of the eighties” must strike a Russian audience as ludicrous. The role and nature of the peasant was a permanent preoccupation of the Russian intelligentsia, and at no time more than during the decade preceding the 1880s. There is no evidence in the play that Gayev has any real interest in the peasants, and (as we shall see) the attitude to serfdom will be the corner stone of the criticism voiced by the younger generation against the ‘fathers’ in the play. Moreover it is curious that Gayev should seek to identify himself with the ‘eighties’. As he is now fifty-one years old, it would seem more natural for him to consider himself a ‘man of the seventies’: for in 1881 he could not possibly have been younger than twenty-eight, and the period of the 1880s would therefore have largely coincided with his own thirties. Gayev’s self-identification with the 1880s doubly proclaims his intellectual immaturity.
The “Man of the Eighties”
Gayev’s earlier, embarrassing, speech to the bookcase reveals the values of the “man of the eighties”. Although he talks of “fruitful work”, it appears to be books which, in his view have summoned the Russian intelligentsia to action throughout the whole century. There is no evidence that Gayev himself has read any books; his one passion is that sign of a mis-spent youth— billiards—and he frames his idea not in terms of books but of the bookcase. Thus books are substituted for action, and a bookcase for the books themselves:
Gayev: Your silent appeal to fruitful labor has never lessened in the course of a hundred years, upholding (through tears) in generations of our line personal courage and faith in a better future and nurturing in us the ideals of Cardinal good and social consciousness. (Pause.)
The ambiguities in this passage are striking. It is not only the ‘fruitful work’ which evokes echoes for the symbol of the cherry orchard itself, but Gayev’s use of the word rod (kith and kin) also suggest his ‘kind’: it opens up his argument to include the whole of the gentry class, yet what the bookcase has taught them is not ‘social awareness’ but ‘social self-awareness’. Typically, Chekhov’s own laughter at Gayev is conveyed by his direction: (through tears).
Some forty years earlier, in his influential essay What is Oblomovism ? the critic Nikolay Dobrolyubov had assessed the tradition of gentry culture as it had developed up to that point. He claimed that for the gentry intelligentsia reading got in the way of deeds, that rhetoric replaced action, and that its leaders showed little more than self-regard: he saw the summation of its values in the hero of Goncharov’s novel Oblomov. Gayev, in paying tribute to a full century of this tradition, seems cast in the role of an updated ‘Oblomov’ (in the emblematic sense suggested by Dobrolyubov). Little appears to have changed: Gayev is lazy, lives in a childish world of the imagination, he too is nannied by an elderly servant, who dresses him much as Zakhar dresses Oblomov. Gayev prefers rhetoric to books and most certainly to action; his social consciousness is merely self-regarding—the social self-awareness of a class. Nevertheless, Oblomov’s friend Shtolts, the representative of a newly rising entrepreneurial class, had been Oblomov’s constant support, but in Chekhov’s play the activities of that entrepreneurial friend of the family, Lopakhin, are ultimately destructive.
Representative of the Younger Generation
Nobody takes the elevated thoughts of Gayev seriously, yet Trofimov is listened to. He is of the younger generation of the intelligentsia and his social origins are quite different from those of Gayev. In Act II Gayev’s proclamation of aesthetic and romantic values, in the speech on nature which he is forced to abandon, follows hard on the heels of Trofimov’s speech on the future and on the need for work. It is as though Gayev had been spurred into vying with the younger man; for, significantly, Trofimov’s words are an indictment of Gayev himself:
Trofimov: The educated people I know, the vast majority at any rate, aren’t in search of a single thing, and they certainly don’t do anything. So far they lack even the ability for real work. They call themselves the intelligentsia, but they speak to their servants as inferiors and treat their peasants as if they were animals. They are poor students, they read absolutely nothing serious, and they do precisely nothing. They only talk about science, and as for art, they understand next to nothing.
Gayev, the ‘man of the eighties’, who claims to love the peasants, is just such an intellectual charlatan. The pet name she reserves for Gayev himself—Lena seems to confirm his laziness (len’).
Chekhov’s portrayal of Trofimov is not as explicit as he would have liked. The concept of ‘eternal student’ has not necessarily the comic implications it assumes in the play, as Chekhov explained to his wife, in confiding the fears he had entertained about the play’s success: ‘I was chiefly afraid about the lack of movement in the second act, and a certain lack of completeness in the student Trofimov. You see, Trofimov is constantly in exile, he is constantly being expelled from the university, and how can one depict things like that ? It would have been impossible for Chekhov to have depicted his student as a revolutionary, nevertheless, when Trofimov refuses Lophakin’s money, in Act IV, there can be no doubt as to his meaning:
Trofimov: I’m strong and proud. Humankind is on its way to a higher truth, to the greatest happiness possible on this earth, and I’m in the vanguard!
There is a native, idealistic, purity about Trofimov which is reminiscent of the revolutionary hero depicted by N.G. Chernyshevsky in his novel What is to be done ? His sexual purity is mocked by Lyubov Andreyevna, but by treating Trofimov’s idealism and the involuntary protraction of his university career with humour, Chekhov managers to present him in a way acceptable to the censorship of the time. He did not deceive everybody. As The Cherry Orchard was in rehearsal, Gorky is reported to have said to its author: “Now I am convinced that your next play will be a revolutionary one”
Nevertheless Chekhov is polemicising with Gorky in the play. Trofimov’s words on being ‘strong and proud’ pick up the pride advocated by Satin in Gorky’s play The Lower Depths. Gorky’s idealistic view of man’s potential derives from his semi-mystical philosophy of ’God-building’, and it is significant that in criticizing the concept through the mouth of Trofimov, Chekhov seems to be suggesting Gayev as its proponent:
Lyubov Andreyevna: No, let’s go on with what we were saying yesterday.
Trofimov: What was it about?
Trofimov: We talked a long time yesterday, but we didn’t get anywhere. The proud person in your sense of the word has something mystical inside. Maybe you’re even right the way you see it. But if we reason it out simply and not try to be one bit fancy, then what sort of pride can you possibly take or what’s the sense of ever having it, if man is poorly put together as a physiological type and if the enormous majority of the human race is brutal, stupid, and profoundly unhappy? We must stop admiring ourselves. What we ought to do is just keep on working.
Gayev: We’re going to die, so it doesn’t matter.
Trofimov: Who knows for certain? Besides, what does “to die” really mean? It may be that man has a hundred senses and at death only five known to us are lost, while the remaining ninety-five go on living.
Trofimov, who begins by attacking the mysticism of Gorky’s ‘proud man’, is easily brought round in argument to propounding his own mystical ideas on mortal man, and although his next speech is his serious attack on the intelligentsia which, as we have already seen, is an implied criticism of Gayev, there is, nevertheless, a measure of unconscious irony at his own expense as a member of the intelligentsia:
Trofimov: They are all very serious people with stern expressions on their faces. They discuss nothing but important matters and like to philosophize a great deal, while at the same time everyone can see that the workers are detestably fed, sleep without suitable bedding, thirty to forty in a room with bed bugs everywhere, the stench, the dampness, and the moral corruption...Obviously all our fine talk has gone on simply to hoodwink ourselves and other people as well.
The Practical Businessman
Lopakhin, the practical businessman, and Trofimov, the idealist intellectual, do not always see eye to eye, but in spite of their jibes there is a certain mutual respect. Lopakhin is impressed by Trofimov’s extolling of work, and through him the argument once more turns to the nature of man: he considers that the grand scale of Russia itself should produce native-born giants. Significantly Lyubov Andreyevna sees such supermen as a threat, whereas Chekhov himself, by suddenly forcing Yepichodov upon everyone’s attention, appears to endorse Trofimov’s original objection to the mysticism of ’proud man’—the reality of man as he exists:
Lyubov Andreyevna: Now you find giants indispensable...Oh, they are very nice only in fairy stories; anywhere else they can scare you. (Yepichodov crosses at the depth of the stage, playing his guitar. Lyubov Andreyevna is deep in thought.) There goes Yepichodov...
Anya: (deep in thought) There goes Yepichodov...
Gayev: The sun has set, ladies and gentlemen.
Here is Chekhov creating mood, but one, which for all its poetic wistfulness has hard ironic comment at its core, Yepichodov is similarly used at the end of the act. The melancholy guitar of “Two-and-twenty hard knocks is heard when Trofimov is talking about ‘happiness’
Trofimov: Believe me, Anya, you must believe! I’m not yet thirty, I’m a young man, and I’m still a student, but I have already gone through so much! As soon as winder’s come, I find myself hungry, ill, worried, poor as a beggar, and—the places fate has driven me, the places! Where haven’t I been, where? And the whole time, every minute of the day and night, I’ve felt impressions of the future abound in my soul, visions I can’t explain. I know happiness is coming, Anya, I can feel it. I already see it on the way...
Anya: (deep in thought) The moon is rising.
Yepichodov is heard playing the guitar, the same sad song as before. The moon rises. Somewhere near the popular trees, Varya is looking for Anya and is calling, “Anya! Where are you?”
Trofimov: Yes, the moon is rising. (Pause.) There it is happiness. There it comes, coming nearer, always nearer. I can already hear its footsteps. And if we don’t see it, if we don’t experience it, what does it matter? Other people will see it.
The rising moon seems to take up: “ The sun’s gone down, ladies and gentlemen” in the earlier passage. Gayev’s setting sun seems like a valedictory symbol for an age and a class, but it is replaced by a moon which Trofimov identifies with the future happiness of mankind. Such a symbol, taken together with Yepichodov’s mournful guitar, and the calls of a searching Varya, suggests the same sort of ambivalence that surrounded the arguments on ‘proud men’ and giants. Moreover the Trofimov, who here at the end of Act II compares himself to winter and welcomes the moon as happiness, invites comparison with the Trofimov who had concluded Act I with an invocation to Anya.” My little sun! my Spring”.
If the guitar and person of ‘Two-and-twenty misfortunes’ seem to add a melancholy, pessimistic note to hopes about the nature of man and the happiness to come through social change, there is yet another ‘sad’ sound of a string to be heard in Act II, and it provides an even more ominous commentary on the theme. Again the mood is pensive: (They all sit deep in thought; the silence is only broken by the subdued muttering of Firs, Suddenly a distant sound is heard, coming as if out of the sky, like the sound of a string snapping, slowly and sadly dying away). Although the sound appears to come from above, Lopakhin suggests it might have an underground explanation—a pit accident. Even more improbably Gayev and Trofimov think of birds (a heron and an eagle owl). Lyubov Andreyevna shudders, finding the sound ‘unpleasant, somehow’, but it is left to Firs, whose own mumbling the sound had disturbed, to interpret it as an omen: (A pause) First. ‘It was the same before the misfortune: the owl hooted and the samovar kept singing’. When he is asked to what ‘misfortune’ (neschast’ye) he is referring, Firs replies: ‘before freedom’. He has in mind the greatest social upheaval of nineteenth-century Russia—the liberation of the serfs in 1861, but he does not see this great reform which gave him the new status of a free man, as bringing happiness—it was ‘unhappiness’ (i.e. misfortune). Similar omens before the liberation of the serfs are referred to in an earlier story by Chekhov, actually entitled Happiness (Schast’ye), and many commentators have also pointed to the fact that a strange sound occurs in that story, which is also ascribed to the fall of a pit-tub deep below the ground.
The symbolism of the play, which on one level evokes a poetic penumbra of lyrical mood and pensive reflection, in reality exhibits the same mixed elements as the comedy—it contains an undercurrent which is ominous and disturbing. The central image of the cherry orchard is seen by different characters in different ways. It represents both happiness and suffering, and its fate also reflects the theme of social change. In Act I, the orchard, although off-stage, is an obvious presence; the windows of the nursery open directly on to it, and its beauty is a local point of attention. Act II is set outside on the estate, but not in the cherry orchard. The opening directions indicate that the orchard begins beyond the poplars on one side of the set. During Act III, when the estate is being sold, there is little real evidence of the orchard’s existence, and in Act IV the audience is aware of the cherry orchard through its negation in the off-stage sounds of the axes which are chopping it down. Thus with each successive act there is a sense of the cherry orchard receding further and further towards oblivion.
For Lyubov Andreyevna the cherry orchard symbolizes her childhood and the past. It is the most remarkable phenomenon in the whole province, a thing of beauty, which also produces fruit (though not as often as it might, and now unfortunately it can no longer be put to use). Like Gayev’s century-old bookcase it stands as a symbol for the flowering of nineteenth-century gentry’ culture, whose fruits and usefulness are now in the past. Its existence is threatened by a more democratic age, in which every little bourgeois wants his dacha and his own plot of land, which, as their spokesman Lopakhin hopes, they will one day set about to cultivate.
The symbolism of trees is strongly developed in Russian literature— from Turgenev and Tolstoy to writers of the twentieth century such as Pasternak and Leonov. It is a recurrent feature of Chekhov’s own-writing (Dr. Astrov in Uncle Vanya, Masha’s oak tree in The Three Sisters) yet most relevant of all, as a symbol for nineteenth-century Russian society, is the extended allegory of the forest in Dobrolyubov’s essay What is Oblomovism? Dobrolyubov depicts the gentry’ intelligentsia as attempting to lead the ordinary people through a dangerous forest. They climb the trees to avoid the dangers and to spy the way ahead, but the trees are comfortable and they have found fruit there. They ignore the people below until the latter in desperation begin to hack down their trees:
Oh! Oh! Don’t do that! Stop! they howl when they see the people setting to work to cut down the trees on which they are ensconced. Don‘t you realise that we may be killed and that with us will perish those beautiful ideas, those lofty sentiments, those human strivings, that eloquence, that fervour, that love for all that is beautiful and noble that have always inspired us? Stop! Stop! What are you doing.
The trees of Dobrolyubov’s allegory were to be taken as representing the institution of serfdom, which supported the gentry and yielded them fruit, whilst at the same time affording them an elevated position which they could claim was for the benefit of others, but axes remove this social myth as they remove the Gayev’s cherry orchard at the end of Chekhov’s play.
For Lyubov Andreyevna the orchard is still alive with happy ghosts. She looks out of the window in Act I and believes she sees her mother in a white dress. It is of course mere a tree. But for Trofimov the orchard is peopled with other ghosts, as he tells Anya towards the end of Act I:
Trofimov: All Russia is our orchard. The land is vast and beautiful and filled with marvelous places. (Pause.) Just think, Anya, your grandfather and your great-grandfather and all your ancestors owned both land and serfs, they owned living souls. Don’t you see that from every cherry tree in the orchard, from every leaf and every trunk, generations of human beings are gazing down at you, don’t you hear their voices...To own human souls—it has transformed every one of you, don’t you see, those who lived before and those living today. And so your mother, your uncle, and you no longer notice that you are living in debt, at the expense of other people, at the expense of the very people you will allow no farther than the entrance to your home... We are at least two hundred years behind the times, we haven’t made any real headway yet, and we still don’t have any clear idea about our relation to the past. We just philosophize, complain of boredom, or drink vodka. It’s so clear, you see, that if we’re to begin living in the present, we must first of all redeem our past and then be done with it forever. And the only way we can redeem our past is by suffering and by giving ourselves over to exceptional labor, to steadfast and endless work. You must realize this, Anya.
This is undoubtedly the most important speech in the play. It begins with a broad vision, an exhortation to look beyond the narrow confines of the cherry orchard: ‘The whole of Russia is our orchard. The earth is great and beautiful and there are many, many wonderful places on it.’ Here Trofimov seems to be almost on the point of endorsing Lopakhin’s earlier idea that the grand scale of nature in Russia should produce giants, but the body of the speech contains one of Chekhov’s strongest indictments of Russia’s past. It is a speech with many resonances. Thus it is significant that Trofimov projects the particular, legal situation of the orchard’s present owners into the general and moral position of a whole class. They are in debt, but not to the bank: they are ‘living on credit, on somebody else’s account, at the expense of those people whom you do not allow beyond the entrance hall’. Similarly the ‘redemption’ he proposes is no mere financial transaction—it is nothing less than the redemption of the entire past.
Trofimov’s assertion: “To own living souls that has caused degeneration in us all” is an idea of prime importance. It occurs at a meridian point in the play, but before the significance of its various resonances is pursed both backward and forward it is essential to look its linguistic implications. The verb, which Trofimov uses to indicates ‘degeneration’—pererodit’ is based on the root rod (the concept celebrated by Gayev in his speech to the bookcase). The First meaning of rod is ‘birth’, ‘breed’ but it also means ‘kith’ as well as ‘kind’. The adjective derived from it: rodnoy, denotes close blood relationship; so that Gayev is the ‘blood brother’, rodnoy bral, of Lyubov Andreyevna. More loosely, however, the adjective can be used as a term of endearment indicating that someone is regarded as ‘close’, or ‘dear’. By using the verb pererodit Trofimov is asserting that a complete change of ‘kind’ has come about in the nation as a whole, through the owning of ’living souls’. ‘Soul’ is the legal term for a serf. It is term which contains a great irony, in as much as serfdom treated living human souls as through they were inanimate objects—mere chattels. Trofimov’s phrase ‘living souls’ evokes the ambiguities of Gogol’s famous novel about the buying and selling of serfs—Dead Souls. The soul, of course, is also the ‘living spirit’—anima—and in its nouns Russian grammar makes a distinction between ‘animate’ and ‘inanimate’ (odushevlennyy and neodushevlennyy). Trofimov’s point is that serf-owning has blurred this distinction, so that the human needs of people can be ignored , while objects , such as the cherry orchard, are invested with emotional values more proper to people.
Lopakhin’s Peasant Past
Lopakhin believes that he can forget his peasant past. In Act I he tells Lyubov Andreyevna, that although her brother regards him as an oaf and a kulak, (‘a tight-fisted peasant’) he feels that he has an affinity with her:
Lopakhin: My father was a serf, belonging to your grandfather and after him your father, but you—you personally—did so much for me once I’ve forgotten all that and I love you as if we were flesh and blood...even more than my own flesh and blood.
The word Lopakhin uses here is not ‘sister’ but rodnoy (Lyublyu vas kak rodnuyu...borshe chem rodnuyu)—i.e., ‘I love you as kith and kin ... more than kith and kin’.
Lyubov Andreyevna completely ignores this declaration of affection and kinship. Instead she proclaims her restlessness and almost immediately exhibits her affection for an inanimate object, using the very same kinship-like term of endearment—rodnoy: ‘My dear little bookcase’ (shkafik moy rodnoy). She kisses it, then addresses her table.
There is no stage direction to indicate that Lopakhin might have taken this as a rebuff, but the next time he speaks, the comic juxtaposition of ideas suggests a certain irony: “I feel I’d like to tell you something nice, something jolly. (Glances at his watch.) I’ll have to go in a moment, there’s no time to talk.” He then broaches his scheme for the cherry orchard.
Earlier, when the aged family retainer, Firs, had brought her a cushion, Lyubov Andreyevna had extended the endearment rodnoy to him and kissed him, calling him “her dear little old man” (may starichok). In Act III she shows concern about his health and asks him where he will go if the estate is sold. Yet in Act IV, although she takes an emotional farewell of the house itself, and actually personifies it as ‘old granded’, she shows little concern for Firs, the real ‘old granded’, of the house, who is thoughtlessly left behind along with the furniture. Indeed there is unconscious irony in her words: “When we leave here there I won’t be a soul in the place.”
This final act opens with Gayev and Lyubov Andreyevna returning from saying farewell to the peasants. With typical lack of restraint in matters of money, she has given them her purse, but she is more thrifty with her attention when it comes to saying goodbye to her faithful old retainer. Firs is ill, she knows that she will not see him again, yet at the end of the acts she looks impatiently at her watch and says she can spare him some five minutes. When she is told that he has already gone, she makes absolutely no comment but passes immediately to what she sees as her duties in respect of Varya.
There is a general lack of concern about Firs. In Act III the other servants enjoy themselves as guests at the ball, leaving Firs to do all the work, so that his complaint:’ There’s no one in the house but me’ (odin na ves’ don) seems almost prophetic of the ending. Prophetic too is the apparent nonsense reply which Firs makes in Act II, when Gayev complains of being ‘fed up’ with him for fussing over him about his clothes: “There’s nothing to be done there ... they went off in the morning without saying anything.” Yasha, who ironically addresses Firs as ‘grandad’ expresses his boredom more strongly in Act III: “How you weary me, Grandad! (Yawns.) I wish you’d go away and die soon.” A similar unsympathetic sentiment is expressed by Yepichodov in Act IV at the very time that Anya is trying to find out whether Firs has already left:
Anya: Has Firs been sent to the hospital?
Yasha: I told them this morning. They’ve sent him, it stands to reason they have.
Anya: (to Yepichodov, who is passing through the room) Semyon Panteleich, please ask and find out if they’ve taken Firs to the hospital.
Yasha: (offended) I told Yegor this morning. Why keep on asking about it? You’ve brought it up ten times.
Yepichodov: Firs has lived through so many years, my final and decisive opinions is that he’s gone far beyond repair. It’s time for him to meet his forefathers. And I can only envy him.
Saying farewell to Firs has been left to the unsympathetic, even hostilely disposed, younger generation of servants, and the fact that the letter, which should have accompanied him, is still in the house alerts neither Anya nor Varya to the possibility that he might not even yet have gone. It is Trofimov’s point that serf owning has corrupted everybody—masters and servants alike.
Firs, the human embodiment of the old order is left locked up in the old manorial house, which is soon to be destroyed. Yet, although the masters have forgotten him, he, as, ever, is solicitous for them:
Firs: (goes up to the door and touches the handle) Locked. They’ve gone away...(Sits on the sofa.) They forgot me...It’s nothing... I’ll sit here for a while... And Leonid Andreich didn’t put on his fur coat, I suppose, he must have gone away in his light one...(Sighs anxiously.) I just didn’t look after it...Oh, these green young things—they never learn !
The finer feelings of Leonid Andreevich (Gayev) himself seem reserved for such things as a bookcase (‘an inanimate object, true, but still a bookcase’) the house itself or even such abstract concepts as Nature, apostrophized as a person. The confusion of animate and inanimate of embarrassment he frequently asks: ‘whom?’ instead of ’what?’, and the billiard terminology which is constantly on his lips treats the billiard balls as grammatical animates rather than inanimate entities.
The values of rod (breed) receive comic treatment at the beginning of Act III, in the figures of Simeonov-Pishchik. It involves the confusion of the human with the animal:
Pishchik: I’m as healthy as a horse, however. My departed father was something of a joker—may the kingdom of heaven be his—and he used to explain our origins like this. The ancient line of Simeonov-Pishchik, he’d say, comes down from the very same horse that Caligula had seated in the senate...
Such absurdity involving names has many parallels in Russian literature. They all go back to Gogol. Thus Maksimov in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brother Karamazov claims to be the identical Maksimov mentioned by Gogol in Dead Souls. There is something Gogolian about Pishchik too. At his First appearance in Act I he is described as wearing sharovary—those loose, baggy Cossack breeches which seem to link him with the comic heroes of Gogol’s Ukrainian tales (one of whom, Ivan Ivanovich Pererepenko, is mortally offended when a ‘gander’ is added to his noble name). In Act IV, Pishchik’s desire to have his existence established for others is an obvious literary ‘quotation’ from the comic character Bobchinsky in Gogol’s play The Government Inspector:
Pishchik: And if the news gets to you that my end has come, just recall this very...old horse and say, “Once on this earth there was such-and-such a person...Simeonov-Pishchik...may the kingdom of heaven be his...”
The name Pishchik means ‘swazzle’ (the device used in puppetry to distort the human voice), as such, not only does it hint at the theme of ‘animate/ inanimate’, but also suggests the methods of Gogol’s comic characterization, which had its roots in the Ukrainian puppet theatre (vertep). The linking of robust health to an identification with an animal recalls Gogol’s ‘bear’, Sobakevich, in Dead Souls, and the absurdity of the supposed origin of Pishchik’s rod suggest that Chekhov is reworking that famous confusion of animate with inanimate in Gogol’s story. The Overcoat, where the name of the hero is supposedly derived from an actual shoe. One cannot escape the impression that Chekhov is playing one of his elaborate literary jokes: Pishchik does not suggest that his rod came from a Roman emperor, but rather from his horse, yet, like Gogol’s hero, Bashmachkin, the emperor in question, Caligula, also has a name derived from a shoe (caliga), and his forename Gaius (in Russian Gay) has provided the root for the name of the play’s other champion of rod—Gayev.
Attitude towards the Past
Trofimov’s speech on the cherry orchard contains a statement which is of crucial importance for understanding the ambiguity at the heart of the symbol of the cherry orchard itself: “we have no clear defined attitude to the past”. The past for Lyubov Andreyevna has happy as well as painful memories; they exist side by side. She talks of the heavy stone of the past round her neck and shoulders, but immediately afterwards ‘laughs happily’ when she thinks she sees the ghost of her mother in the orchard.
The sale of the cherry orchard, with both its happiness and its pain seems unthinkable:
Lyubov Andreyevna: You know I was born here, my father and my mother lived here, my grandfather, too. I love this house. Without the cherry orchard my life would lost its meaning, and if it must really be sold then go and sell me with the orchard... (Embraces Trofimov and kisses him on the forehead.) You see my son was drowned here...(Weeps.) Have pity on me, my fine, kind friend.
Yet the estate is sold and it is Firs who is left behind not Lyubov Andreyevna. Nor, after all, is its sale the irreparable loss, which her words might suggest. When Gayev returns in Act III bearing the bad news. Chekhov’s directions hint at comedy in their suggestion of ‘on the one hand, and yet on the other’: (Enter Gayev; he carries some parcels (i.e. purchases) in his right hand and wipes away his tears with his left). He makes no reply to his sister’s anxious questions but, still crying, hands Firs ‘anchovies’ and ‘Kerch herrings’, and complains of not having eaten and of how much he has suffered. But his expression suddenly changes and he stops crying when he hear the sounds of Yasha playing billiards. In Act IV, Gayev even seems to have caught some of Anya’s optimism at the prospect of a new life:
Gayev: (cheerfully) Yes, indeed, everything is fine again. Before the cherry orchard was sold, we were all upset and worried ourselves sick, but afterwards, when the whole thing was settled once and for all, and not one chance of turning back, we all simmered down and even started to feel cheerful...I’m an employee of a bank now. I’m a financier...Off the yellow right into the middle. And Lyuba, in spite of everything, you are looking better, no doubt about it, none.
Lyubov Andreyevna: Yes. My nerves are much better, that’s true. (Someone helps her put on her hat and coat.) I’m sleeping fine.
It is true that the brother and sister are allowed their emotional leave-taking of the house, but then they both go off to their different lives: Lyubov Andreyevna to her lover in Paris, and, symbolically, on money right (in Act III she told us that the money had been sent to buy the estate in the aunt’s name as she didn’t trust them); money will also figure in Gayev’s new life: he is to become a banker. Yet the improbability of such a career is suggested through oblique commentary. When Gayev First mentions the offer of this job in Act II his infertility is immediately stressed: Firs fusses over him with a coat. Moreover in the final act, as we have seen, Gayev refers to himself ironically as a financier and adds a scrap of his perpetual play-talk: “I pot the red”. In the leave-taking of these middle-aged children, one senses pathos is verging on the comic. It is aptly parodied in the clowning of Charlotta.
Gayev: Happy Charlotta, she’s singing!
Charlotta: (picks up a bundle -which resembles a baby in swaddling clothes) Bye, bye, little baby mine...(The crying of a baby is heard, “Wah, Wah!...”) Be quiet, my dear, my fine little boy. (“Wah!...Wah!...”) I feel sorry for you, so sorry! (Throws the bundle down.) Then please find me another job, won’t you? I can’t go on like this.
Hope seems to lie with the younger generation, represented by Anya (under the influence of Trofimov). For them whole of Russia is their orchard, and an ‘ill-defined attitude to the past’ is no longer possible. Anya rejects all the nostalgic ties of the estate, when she tells Trofimov at the end of Act II: “The house we live in hasn’t really been ours for a long time. I’ll leave it. I give you my word”. But the ties of the past are ambiguous; its associations are also painful. Anya’s mother had left the estate, inn order never to see again the river where her little son had drowned. Anya ends Act II with a gesture of defiance, not only escaping from Varya, but more importantly exorcising spectres of the past: “Let us go to the river. It’s nice there”.
In the final act Anya and Trofimov make their farewells with the minimum of emotion:
Anya: “Good-bye’, old house! Good-bye, old life!”
Trofimov: ‘Greetings to the new life!’ (Goes out with Anya).
Gayev and Lyubov Andreyevna are left for their last tearful scene together, but their emotional farewell to their past is punctuated by happy calls from off-stage (together with the enigmatic ‘Ah-oo’). Anya’s Voice: (gaily). ‘Mammal!’. Trofimov’s Voice: (gaily and excitedly), ‘Ah-oo!’ These calls are repeated a second time...before the older couple finally depart.