Themes in The Cherry Orchard
Adapting to Change as Crucial to Survival: A central theme of Chekhov’s play is the change that comes with the passing of time. The characters of The Cherry Orchard have various reactions to social and familial change—some struggle to let go of the past while others embrace the developments of the future. Some characters do not know how to respond to change, feeling lost and without direction as the world shifts around them. It is clear that those who are adaptive are likely to succeed, whereas those who lack malleability will continue to suffer.
Memories as Refuge and Prison: Closely connected to themes of modernity and change is the idea of memory. For those struggling with the changes happening in Russia, memories become a refuge in an idyllic past. Conversely, memories haunt those that wish to forget their past and live solely in the present. On a wider scale, the play is concerned with the historical memory of Russia, especially of the oppressive serfdom and rigid class structure of the past. The servant Fiers exemplifies this “forgotten era,” symbolized when he is quite literally forgotten at the conclusion of the play.
Class Distinctions Give Way to a Middle Class: Russia’s bold class distinctions are beginning to soften as Russia moves into a new era. Some characters have been able to overcome the restrictions of their class, such as Lopakhin, the son of a serf (a position similar to a slave, but with some land rights), who has now become a wealthy merchant. Nevertheless, these class distinctions remain pronounced, especially in the separation of nobility from the “serving” class. Madame Ranevsky is appalled when Lopakhin purchases the orchard, in large part due to his humble beginnings. Similarly, Lopakhin scolds Dunyasha for trying to appear like a lady of nobility, which he sees as an overstep of her societal class. Fiers, a former serf, is perhaps the most blatant example of enduring class distinctions in Russia. While technically “freed” from serfdom, he chooses to remain in the role, performing the same duties for the estate as he did while in bondage.
Themes Examples in The Cherry Orchard:
Act I 13
"If we can't think of anything and don't make up our minds to anything, then on August 22, both the cherry orchard and the whole estate will be up for auction...." See in text (Act I)
Lopakhin provides both the family’s and the play’s ticking clock: they must figure out how to pay their debts or they lose their estate. The crux of the drama is watching how the Ravenskys react to the encroaching deadline, showing who can accept change and who refuses to move forward with the times.
"I've several remedies, very many, and that really means I've none at all...." See in text (Act I)
Gaev admits that, like an illness with no proven cure, their problem of debt doesn’t have a clear solution and may be incurable with their current circumstances. Though he sees many possible strategies, none of them are adequate or likely enough to merit attention over the others. His statement is also ironic, given that Lopakhin has just proposed a solution that would likely succeed, showing just how far in denial the Ravensky siblings are.
"if I could forget my past!..." See in text (Act I)
Lubov’s comment here has a double meaning. In the past several years she has suffered from multiple tragedies: the deaths of her husband and son and the betrayal of her new lover in Paris. She laments that she cannot forget these recent tragedies and return to her idyllic, blissful childhood. At the same time, the audience notes that if Lubov could move beyond her childhood memories, she could find a way to save her estate, but she is currently trapped by her own nostalgia.
"They've forgotten. Nobody remembers...." See in text (Act I)
Fiers provides a potential way out of debt for the Ravensky siblings: in the prosperous past, the estate used to sell a jam made from the cherries. Though this would provide a use for the orchard, it’s a tragic solution because no one quite remembers the jam’s recipe. Thus, the orchard is again reduced to a nostalgic reminder of past greatness with Fiers alongside it.
"This orchard is mentioned in the "Encyclopaedic Dictionary."..." See in text (Act I)
Gaev’s assertion of the orchard’s relevance reveals that the Ravenskys value the prestige of the orchard and its past greatness more than they ought to. Though it produces fruit, no one buys it, making the orchard more of a burden than a blessing. It would be more useful to the family if it were cut down, but the Ravensky siblings refuse to consider the possibility since that would be equivalent to erasing the family’s history and status that they treasure.
"ove you as if you belonged to my family... and even more...." See in text (Act I)
This line, directed to Lubov, displays Lopakhin’s fondness for Lubov despite the fact that her family used to own his. According to Lopakhin, the Ravensky’s cruel practice of keeping serfs is in the past, which is something he is willing to let go of, unlike Lubov. There is also a suggestion that Lopakhin may be in love with Lubov when he proclaims that he loves her more than if she was part of his family, though this possibility is never directly confirmed.
"Let me remember now. Red into the corner! Twice into the centre!..." See in text (Act I)
With the return of her brother, Lubov indulges in nostalgic memories of games of pool (billiards) they used to play together, even remembering the holes they sent the balls into. Because of the great hold these fond memories have over them, it is clear that Lubov and Gaev are reluctant to see things change.
"The place will be sold in August...." See in text (Act I)
A key plot point: the house and surrounding cherry orchard will be sold by auction in August. How each character reacts to this knowledge drives the rest of the play and greatly informs the audience of the different class structures at the time.
"She's already sold her villa near Mentone; she's nothing left, nothing...." See in text (Act I)
Lubov has been forced to sell her villa in Mentone (or Menton) in the southeast of France. This line expresses the belief that without material possessions Madame Ranevsky’s identity is void. As a member of the upper class, Madame Ranevsky must retain her material possessions in order to retain her identity.
"The nursery!..." See in text (Act I)
As noted in the stage directions, the room continues to be called a nursery even though that name or purpose no longer applies. Madame Ranevsky (Lubov Andreyevna) continues to hold onto the past, which removes her from the reality of the present.
"ou should know your place...." See in text (Act I)
Lopakhin scolds Dunyasha the maidservant for dressing as a lady of nobility. This line is ironic coming from Lopakhin because he himself comes from the serving-class and now dresses in expensive clothes. We can assume that Lopakhin distinguishes himself from Dunyasha in that he has now made enough money to be considered wealthy, whereas Dunyasha remains a maidservant. This line further emphasizes the rigidness of societal divisions between classes.
"I'm still a peasant down to the marrow of my bones...." See in text (Act I)
Lopakhin is pleased he has managed to leave the poverty of serfdom to become a wealthy merchant, like “a pearl out of an oyster.” However, here we see that Lopakhin only defines this change as superficial, associated with the clothes he wears, and not with whom he remains on the inside. Lopakhin’s view of himself as “still a peasant” confirms the idea that while Russia’s social class distinctions have begun to soften, they still very much remain intertwined with how people view themselves and others. Appearances are shown to deceive the “real” identity which lies below the surface in the memory of each individual.
"A room which is still called the nursery..." See in text (Act I)
The adverb “still” conveys a sense of persistence despite something to the contrary. In this case, the room continues to be called a nursery even though that name or purpose no longer applies. This establishes notion of persistence or of holding on to something from the past, despite it not being the reality in the present.
Act II 3
"I'm quite sure there wasn't anything at all funny. You oughtn't to go and see plays, you ought to go and look at yourself...." See in text (Act II)
Madame Ranevsky claims that Lopakhin should not go see plays, suggesting that going to watch life as it’s portrayed in a theater is a waste of time; that looking at one’s own life is entertainment enough. On one level, her advice is ironic because she has yet to constructively examine her own life. On another, Lopakhin’s agreement that “we live a silly life” perhaps serves as Chekhov commenting on the absurd, comic nature of his characters and play. They and their silly lives are just there to entertain; they provide distraction and frivolous entertainment for theater goers.
". For it's so clear that in order to begin to live in the present we must first redeem the past, and that can only be done by suffering, by strenuous, uninterrupted labour. ..." See in text (Act II)
Trofimov believes that Russia’s past is one of horror and deep shame. He sees the history of serfdom in the orchard and comments on how Russia has not yet decided how to deal with its past. Trofimov urges that Russia needs to accept and “redeem” the past in order to move towards the future. Trofimov perspective is one of the many different views towards Old Russia held by characters in the play.
"All Russia is our orchard. ..." See in text (Act II)
The line directly highlights how Chekov is using the cherry orchard as a microcosm of wider Russia. The orchard symbolizes how Russia itself is undergoing a dramatic shift - in ownership, and in societal values and attitudes.
Act III 3
"You boldly look forward, isn't it because you cannot foresee or expect anything terrible, because so far life has been hidden from your young eyes? ..." See in text (Act III)
Madame Ranevsky (Lubov) uses the extended metaphor of sight to represent conflict between young and old, ignorant and knowledgeable. She suggests that Trofimov is only hopeful for the future because he is yet to experience the horrible things in life. Lubov’s pessimistic outlook echoes many of the older characters’ attitudes, and underlines central themes of time and change.
"I can't propose to him myself, little mother...." See in text (Act III)
According to societal expectations, a man must make the proposal to the woman. This attitude is still predominant in Western society today. Varya longs to be with Lopakhin, but he fails to properly notice her, possibly due to his infatuation with Madame Ranevsky. As such, Varya is forced into passivity and unhappiness by the prescribed gender roles associated with engagement and marriage. Varya’s fate is yet another example of individuals who are unable to transcend the rules and expectations of society.
"A hungry dog only believes in meat..." See in text (Act III)
With this line, Pischin makes a direct comparison between hunger and money. Just like how a hungry dog can only focus on food, Pischin argues, a poor man can only focus on money. This comparison suggests that Pischin believes that any non-monetary concerns are luxuries for the rich, who can afford to think about other things.