The Cherry Orchard: Essay Q&A
1. Discuss the effect of Liberation on Chekhov's characters Lopakhin and Firs.
Both Lopakhin and Firs were born on the cherry orchard estate as serfs and meant to spend their lives in the unpaid service of Madame Ranevsky's family. However, with the enactment of the Liberation in 1865 by Czar Nicholas II, the lives of both men, which seemed so predestined at birth, changed drastically. However, both men reacted very differently to the new social system. Lopakhin views the Liberation as an opportunity to create a better life. He takes action, working day and night to advance socially and economically. He succeeds, much to everyone's amazement, by becoming the owner of the cherry orchard estate and usurping the power of his former mistress, the aristocrat Madame Ranevsky. Lopakhin says in jubilation, "if only my father and grandfather could rise from their graves and see the whole affair" (38).
On the other hand, the elderly Firs fails to hear the call to action. He pays no heed at all to the Liberation and chooses instead to live his life passively as if freedom had never occurred. He shuffles around, waiting on people who generally take him for granted as they would a piece of the furniture. While he had every opportunity to leave the estate on which he was born, he remains waiting for five years for his mistress Madame Ranevsky to return from Paris. He is so cemented into the feudal system of serfdom that when Madame Ranevsky asks what he will do after the cherry orchard has been sold he simply he tells her, "wherever you tell me there I'll go" (35). Hardly surprisingly, Firs is overlooked and dies alone, a remnant of the past in a locked house after the family leaves the estate.
2. Critics argue that some of Chekhov's characters are affected by blindness. Consider the character Madame Ranevsky in this regard and agree or disagree.
As a character, Madame Ranevsky is metaphorically blind and remains blind throughout the play and thus fails to grow. She grew up in the lap of luxury, so to speak, on the Russian cherry orchard estate surrounded by serfs who would carry out her slightest whim. When she returns from Paris having left an abusive lover, she arrives believing that time has stood still and under the assumption that since her girlhood home belongs to her that nothing has changed. But everything has changed. It is she who has remained the same.
While she has been gone, her former serf Lopakhin, who as a child was not even permitted into the estate kitchen, has used his wits to become a successful businessman, so successful in fact that he attempts to convince Madame Ranevsky as to the necessity to change: sell the cherry orchard for the construction of villas-or perish. However, although she listens to Lopakhin she cannot accept what he has to say. Indeed, she cannot even consider cutting down the cherry orchard because she has constructed the idea that destroying the orchard would in effect be suicide. In her blindness, she fails to take any action and Lopakhin steps in to take over as master of the cherry orchard, leaving her to return to Paris to a bleak future. Her blindness represents the blindness of all those unwilling to accept the new Russia where all the people and not just the aristocrats have the chance to live free and be successful.
3. Some readers read Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard as a comedy while some read it as a tragedy. Address this duality.
Chekhov manages to combine the genres of comedy and tragedy. The playwright originally wrote The Cherry Orchard play as a comedy and was aghast the first time he saw it staged because the director had produced it as a tragedy. Scholars have argued about this duality and there is now general agreement that the play cleverly mixes comedy and tragedy. Readers, or viewers for that matter, cannot help but find certain sections of the play nothing but slapstick. For instance, when Trophimof walks out after Madame Ranevsky calls him a freak for not having a mistress, a clattering noise is heard off stage, Barbara screams and Anya runs in to declare "Peter's tumbled downstairs" (33). And some of the main characters also display great humor. For instance, Gayef inanely interjects comments about billiards into everyday conversation. Madame Ranevsky says she can't afford to pay her mortgage and almost immediately loans her neighbor Pishtchik money to pay his own mortgage. So, while the content of the play is serious, many times the tragic aspect is alleviated by the inclusion of comedy.
In Act III, the simultaneous comedy/tragedy is also apparent. While the most tragic events occur indirectly off stage-the sale of the cherry orchard-the atmosphere at the estate onstage is farcical, high comedy as in the background musicians play. While they await news of the sale of the cherry orchard, Barbara, worried about paying the musicians, scolds Trophimof and Pishtchik for getting drunk and the young servant Dunyasha for dancing like a guest. Characters are falling down, getting drunk, running around, dancing and playing billiards in a very circus-like atmosphere with Charlotte even performing magic tricks, until Lopakhin, who has no intention of proposing to Barbara, returns to tell them the tragic news-the cherry orchard, which has been in the family for hundreds of years, will be chopped down to make way for villas. But even the villain Lopakhin is humorous by being socially so ill at ease and misquoting Shakespeare.
4. How does the character Trophimof function in The Cherry Orchard?
Trophimof is the former tutor of Madame Ranevsky's young son Grisha whose death through drowning resulted in the family's flight to France. For some unknown reason, Trophimof has remained on the family estate and is still in residence when Madame Ranevsky returns. Everyone makes fun of him for being "the perpetual student," except Anya who takes an immediate liking to him. Madame Ranevsky harshly criticizes him by telling him that at his age he should have a mistress. So, while on the surface it might appear that Trophimof is a comic figure, and he certainly is comical when he falls down the stairs, on the other hand Trophimof is an idealist and has the ability see what is going on, unlike Madame Ranevsky, who remains blind to reality. He has the ability to stand back and look to the future with the knowledge that people in the new Russia are doomed unless they change with the times. For instance, Trophimof argues with the "villain" Lopakhin about his means of accruing wealth: "you are a rich man; you will soon be a millionaire . . . just like a beast of prey" (23). In this regard, he makes the reader aware that Lopakhin has something up his sleeve as he befriends Madame Ranevsky. Trophimof optimistically looks to the future: "mankind marches forward, perfecting its strength" and argues that change is inevitable (24). He lectures the others that if they don't change with the times, their lives will end in disaster. In other words, he encourages them to take action, work hard and not remain passive: "everything that is unattainable for us now will one day be near and clear; but we must work" (24).
5. What role does memory and the past play in The Cherry Orchard?
Throughout The Cherry Orchard characters struggle with remembering their past. In an effort to forget her young son Grisha's death, Madame Ranevsky flees Russia for Paris and meets a man who steals her money, abuses her and only returns to Russia when he leaves her for another woman. However, she seems happy to be home until memories of her son flood her mind after she meets his tutor Trophimof who has remained on the estate. Madame Ranevsky's former serf Lopakhin also suffers from difficult memories from his early life as a serf and feels ill at ease at the new social level he has managed to achieve. In addition, Trophimof preaches that all of Russia should forget the past before the Russian Liberation which freed the serfs, to be able to live a bright future. He believes that the people, especially the aristocrats, should not look back and romanticize the past. They should be willing to put these memories of the past aside and embrace the possibilities of a bright future. Trophimof is able to help Madame Ranevsky's young daughter Anya accomplish this by pointing out to her that the glorious and enormous cherry orchard estate where she grew up in the lap of luxury came about as a result of painful unpaid human labor: "all your ancestors were serf owners, owners of living souls.
Do not human spirits look out at you from every leaf and stem?" (27). When Anya realizes the true cost of the cherry orchard, she no longer feels attached and is willing to leave and start a new life. Alas, her mother Madame Ranevsky is unable to forget the past. She returns to Paris doomed to a sad life that will end in poverty. The elderly servant Firs, who has all along been unwilling to forget the past (even though he goes around the estate muttering about his faulty memory) ironically dies forgotten by all.