Mood, Class, Loss and Gain in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard

"I am describing life, ordinary life, and not blank despondency. They either make me into a cry-baby or into a bore. They invent something about me out of their own heads, anything they like, something I never thought of or dreamed about. This is beginning to make me angry.""The next play [The Cherry Orchard] I am going to write will be funny, very funny, at least in conception."
-- letter to Chekhov's wife, March 7, 1901"What I've got isn't a drama, but a comedy, in places even a farce."
  1. Chekhov understood his plays to be comedies.  By this he meant a particular delicate mixture of optimism and pessimism that focused on the humor that ordinary people exemplify in real life situations.
  2. He rejected the theatre of action for a more character-centered and impressionistic work of plot and dialogue.  Such an emphasis can be seen in 1) emotionally-charged moments where characters react to their circumstances or 2) atmospheric moments where a certain wistfulness, despair, loss, and/or hope dominates.
  3. He believed in a high form of verisimilitude that included the random and muted action of actual life.  In his later plays, this resulted in a form of drama that tended to stress compressed, tight plays.  They always tended to climax in the third act, but not so much that the fourth lacked any power to still move.
  4. As a result of all of the above, Chekhov's later plays have often been labeled "lyrical."

Questions for Consideration

1) Do you find The Cherry Orchard comic?  How should we define "the comic" in this play?  [Try looking at the Fowler typology chart.]

2) What moods predominant in each act of the play?   How does Chekhov use scenery, music, sounds, and props to produce a certain kind of mood?  Look at the descriptions of staging in each act and decide how these might be used to produce a certain emotion, impression, or sense of the characters' situations.

3) Consider the following farcical actions of these characters:

  • Pishchik (1543-44, 1556-1557)
  • Charlotta (1547-1548)
  • Yepihodov (1537, 1548)

Other moments in other characters can also be considered farcical:

  • Dunyasha’s reaction to the family’s return (1537), her reaction to Yasha’s attentions (1539-1540), her desire for pretty speeches (1561)
  • Ranevskaya’s accounts of her sordid life can be played as a bad aristocratic stereotype (1550-1551, 1559); likewise, the way she responds with little sense about money
  • Gayev’s imaginary billiard games (cf. 1540)
  • Trofimov’s speeches could be played as over-idealistic (1553, 1555, 1560)
  • Even the way Varya marches around in charge could be played for comic effect (cf. 1541)

4) How should one perform certain key dialogues?

  • 1541-1542 -- Ranevskaya, Lopahin, and Gayev discuss the need to sell the orchard

  • 1553-- the exchange between Trofimov and Lopahin over the future of Russia
  • 1559 -- Ranevskaya's inability to face the truth about the orchard
  • 1563 -- Lopahin's reaction to buying the orchard
  • 1569-1571 -- the leaving of everyone except Firs


"He {Lopahin] is a decent man, in every sense of the word.  He strives to behave well and he is intelligent.  Don't forget that he is loved by Varya, who is a serious and religious girl."
-- Chekhov to Stanislavsky

Consider how class underlies many of the considerations in the play:

  • Ranevskaya and Gayev are of the older aristocratic line.
  • Firs is the elderly manservant who remembers and longs for the old days of aristocratic privilege – he recognizes that a different class of people are now invited to dances.
  • Anya is younger aristocracy but seems more focused on education.
  • Lopahin is the child of former serfs and now an up-and-coming, wealthy merchant.
  • Dunyasha as a maid is quite willing to dress and act outside her station.
  • Yasha as a young valet has come back with some level of European polish.
  • Trofimov, as a student, has a deep awareness of class, including his own strange position in the midst of it.
  • Yepihodov is a clerk who acts above his station.
  • Pishchik is a landowner in search of money.
  • Ranevskaya is quite willing to let Varya and Anya marry across class lines for wealth and education respectively.

Question: Considering the above, what is The Cherry Orchard's message about class?

Loss & Gain

Consider again the way various characters respond in Act IV to the sale of the orchard. There is certainly real loss on the parts of Ranevskaya, Gayev, and Varya, yet even they seemed relieved or at least resigned.   Most of the other characters are actually happy because of turns in events that lead to new opportunities for them.  How should we respond to this curious mixture of loss and gain, of opportunities lost and possibilities still awaiting?

Gina Bria, in an essay called "A Theology of Things," suggests that God has created human beings to experience truth through our physical senses. Because God has created the world, it has a kind of sacredness about it, for it and we are designed to work together.  Bria, in particular, points to the way our memories are dependent to a large extent on the proximity of physical objects we have experienced.  Following the Russian linguist Victor Vygatsky, Bria states that "our memory is stored not only inside our language, inside our heads, but outside of our selves as well, in the visual and tactile cues we receive from the material around us" (10).  As such, we often lose our memories because we are separated from things that act as receptacles of them -- a favorite chair, a beloved scarf, a cherished tool or book.

It is worth asking, then, what kind of memories are stored in the estate in general and the orchard in particular?  Bria helps me understand why the loss in so great for Ranevskaya, Gayev, and Varya.  Bur Bria's thesis also points to another issue in the play: namely, why the characters might be relieved to be free of the orchard after all.  Perhaps, despite their fondness, the characters wish to be allowed to forget. 

Question: What do you think?  Why would they be relieved to forget?  What does the orchard stand for, anyway?  Does it represent different things for different characters and, therefore, differing memories?  (E.g., Lopahin's family memory that his parents would not have been allowed to even be in the great home.) [Bria, Gina. "A Theology of Things." Mars Hill Review 10 (1998): 9-13.]