The Cherry Orchard
by Anton Chekhov
Leonid Andreyevich Gaev
Gaev the Big Baby
Lopakhin calls Gaev an old woman, but we think Gaev is more like a big baby. He loves candy, plays air-pool, and still can't dress himself. Fiers continually worries over his choice of clothing: "[Brushing GAEV'S trousers; in an insistent tone] You've put on the wrong trousers again. What am I to do with you?" (1.159). The small details hint at Gaev's immaturity. He's been spoiled and babied all his life; there's no way he's up to the challenge he and Lubov now face. He tells Varya:
I work my brains to their hardest. I've several remedies, very many, and that really means I've none at all. It would be nice to inherit a fortune from somebody, it would be nice to marry our Anya to a rich man, it would be nice to go to Yaroslav and try my luck with my aunt the Countess. (1.197)
These strokes of luck are the only options Gaev can imagine. The idea of working himself does not occur to him yet.
Gaev is notorious for lecturing at length, at any and all times, on any and all subjects. First we are subjected to an ode to a bookcase:
GAEV. My dear and honored case! I congratulate you on your existence, which has already for more than a hundred years been directed towards the bright ideals of good and justice; your silent call to productive labor has not grown less in the hundred years [Weeping] during which you have upheld virtue and faith in a better future to the generations of our race, educating us up to ideals of goodness and to the knowledge of a common consciousness. [Pause.] (1.129)
Why on earth would Chekhov have Gaev make a speech to a bookcase, except to make him look like a numbskull? It's about context. Perhaps Gaev is thinking of the changes the bookcase – and by extension, the house – has seen in the last hundred years. Remember, Lopakhin has just reminded them that the orchard will be sold. Perhaps Gaev is thinking, all this will be gone soon. When the sun sets in Act 2, Gaev declaims:
O Nature, thou art wonderful, thou shinest with eternal radiance! Oh, beautiful and indifferent one, thou whom we call mother, thou containest in thyself existence and death, thou livest and destroyest. (2.111)
Everyone groans and tells him to zip it. He's just silly Uncle Leon. But in reality, what he says has a bearing on their situation. The beauty of their land, soon to be littered with vacation homes, catches him. Gaev acknowledges the indifference of nature and accepts that "all things must come to an end" – including, the life of the house and his own life.
Gaev considers himself a generous benefactor of the peasants:
I can still say that I've suffered for my beliefs. The peasants don't love me for nothing, I assure you. We've got to learn to know the peasants! We ought to learn how. ... (1.214)
But the reality is that he's deeply uncomfortable with them. When the Passerby enters the scene in Act 2, Gaev freezes, letting Lubov give away money she can't afford to lose. Only once the man has exited does Gaev speak: "My hands are all trembling; I haven't played billiards for a long time" (2.139).
Gaev prefers peasants who fit into a familiar mode from the past, like Fiers. Upwardly mobile peasants irritate him, and he rarely misses an opportunity to put both Yasha and Lopakhin "in their places," usually with a comic reference to what they smell like. When Lopakhin makes small talk in Act 1, Gaev responds, "It smells of patchouli (cheap cologne) here" (1.86). And in the departure scene in Act 4, Gaev is quick to observe, glancing at Yasha, that "somebody smells of herring!" (4.52). Things in Russia are changing too fast for Gaev.