Characterization is the center of Chekhov's work. The pivotal events of the play seem inevitable – and take place offstage. As the Chekhov translator Paul Schmidt says, Chekhov "cut[s] away the melodramatic moments of the 'plot,' or shifts them offstage, leaving finally only his characters' helpless, unheeding responses to those moments" (source: Schmidt, Paul. "Introduction." The Plays of Anton Chekhov. New York: Harper Perennial, 1997. p. 4).
No character in The Cherry Orchard is safe from Chekhov's gentle satire. With his doctor's fine powers of observation, he depicts each person's charms and weaknesses. There's not a character (except Yasha, the opportunistic parasite) with whom Chekhov doesn't seem to sympathize, so much so that when it comes to determining the protagonist, we have a few options (see "Character Roles"). Lubov is vivacious, beautiful, and generous – but she's also a self-centered and foolish, making poor decisions hurt others. We understand Lopakhin's difficult childhood as a motive for his accumulation of wealth, but boy does he make some insensitive moves. Trofimov's idealism is appealing, but his youthful arrogance isn't. He gets his comeuppance in Act 3, humiliated by the anxious Lubov. By combining virtues and flaws in each character, Chekhov achieves an affectionate distance that we in the audience share.
As Dolly Parton says in Steel Magnolias – and we may be paraphrasing here – "Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion." Chekhov felt the same, and often included stage directions suggesting a line be said while "fighting back tears," or "through tears." When Chekhov first visited rehearsals of director Stanislavsky's premiere production of The Cherry Orchard, however, he was appalled. The famous director had his actors weeping copiously – especially in the final act – transforming Chekhov's "Comedy in Four Acts" into a tear-jerking tragedy. Chekhov complained:
Not once does my Anya cry, nowhere do I speak of a tearful tone, in the second act there are tears in their eyes, but the tone is happy, lively. Why did you speak in your telegram about so many tears in my play? Where are they? ... Often you will find the words "through tears," but I am describing only the expression on their faces, not tears. (source: Stroud, Gregory. Retrospective Revolution. Urbana-Champaign, 2006. 63-4.)
Even if Chekhov's wife Olga Knipper, who played Lubov, disagreed, Chekhov insisted the play was a comedy.
Chekhov was first a writer of comic articles and popular short farces, and The Cherry Orchard includes a number of comic elements. Epikhodov of the squeaky boots is clearly a clown, if a sad one. Fiers's deafness provides a good amount of comic relief. Often – particularly in Act 3, when tension is highest – a character has a serious moment and is then undercut by a moment of slapstick. In an uncomfortably harsh encounter, Lubov eviscerates Trofimov for being a virgin. He runs humiliated and falls down the stairs. With this constant to-and-fro of comic and tragic elements, the play doesn't fit into a neat category. Some people have taken to calling works like The Cherry Orchard "Chekhovian Comedy."
The Cherry Orchard really is about a cherry orchard. It's the central plot device in the play. The question "Will the orchard be saved?" gives us a bit of suspense in Chekhov's otherwise leisurely plotting. The cherry orchard is also the central symbol in the play; how each character responds to the orchard – and weighs in on its future – defines how they view the past. For more on that, go to "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory."
The Cherry Orchard ends with the 87-year-old servant Fiers shuffling out to find that the family has departed without him. He tries the door; it's locked. He lies down on the couch, mumbles, "Life's gone on as if I'd never lived," and grows still (4.134). Then the "breaking string" sound is heard, along with the thudding of an axe.
What to make of it? In leaving the orchard, the family finally cuts ties with the past. It will disappear from their memories, just as they've forgotten Fiers in their preparations to leave. We can't help but think, as well, that there's a last comment here on the damaging selfishness of aristocrats like Lubov and Gaev. They've already failed to take action to save the estate, and in their nostalgic, wallowing good-bye to the house, they fail to secure a safe place for their most loyal servant.
In February of 1861, Alexander II emancipated serfs in Russia. Serfs were very much like slaves, but different in that they were attached to the land. If a piece of land was sold, serfs stayed with it and served the new landowner. Before the emancipation (what Fiers calls "the disaster"), there were more than 22 million serfs in Russia, 44% of the population. This new freedom affected not only the serfs, now unemployed, but also the landowners, who couldn't thrive without the cheap labor. Rural areas were still adjusting to the shock forty years later, when Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard.
Setting the first scene in the nursery, Chekhov immediately establishes Lubov's intense emotional relationship with the past. Her first line is "The nursery!" Looking around, she feels like a little girl again. It's going to be very hard for her to part with this place.
This act feels like a pastoral scene from Shakespeare. Love is in the air, servants tease each other, a guitar strums, and Trofimov muses on the future of man. The outdoor setting allows us to spy on interactions that could never happen in the house: the tryst between Dunyasha and Yasha, the flirtation of Trofimov and Anya, and, of course, the encounter with the homeless man. In this act, we get more closely acquainted with the beauty of the orchard, the main subject of contention.
How typical: Lubov throws a party while others decide the fate of the estate. The party in the ballroom serves a number of purposes. With dancing, Charlotta's magic tricks, and a few moments of slapstick, it's a theatrical contrast to the pensive mood of Act 1. It highlights the decline of the household (as Fiers mentions, "At our balls some time back, generals and barons and admirals used to dance, and now we send for post-office clerks and the Station-master, and even they come as a favour" [4.75]). It's also a last hurrah for the household, as though Lubov knows her fate is sealed.
The empty nursery, stripped and filled with luggage, visually represents the change that has come over the house and family since Act 1. Lubov had been so delighted, so comforted to return to the nursery, and now she's leaving it forever.
Nothing in The Cherry Orchard will really throw you for a loop. If you're not familiar with Russian names, it may take you a longer-than-comfortable number of pages to get them straight, but you'll eventually get the hang of it. And you may find your attention wandering as Gaev gives yet another inane speech. But it's not hard to follow the action or identify with the characters.
"What happens onstage should be just as complicated and just as simple as things are in real life. People are sitting at a table having dinner, that's all, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being torn apart," wrote Chekhov of the realistic style exemplified by The Cherry Orchard (source). Characters wander in and out, lines of communication cross, seemingly irrelevant topics are brought up only to be dropped and taken up again later. In this deceptively scattered progression of dialogues, a complete picture of a family and society emerges.
At the end of the chaotic first act, a scene of arrival, Varya reports to her sister Anya on the maintenance of the estate:
VARYA. There's been an unpleasantness here while you were away. In the old servants' part of the house, as you know, only the old people live--little old Efim and Polya and Evstigney, and Karp as well. They started letting some tramps or other spend the night there--I said nothing. Then I heard that they were saying that I had ordered them to be fed on peas and nothing else; from meanness, you see. ... And it was all Evstigney's doing. ... Very well, I thought, if that's what the matter is, just you wait. So I call Evstigney. ... [Yawns] He comes. "What's this," I say, "Evstigney, you old fool."... [Looks at ANYA] Anya dear! [Pause] … My darling's gone to sleep!" (1.220)
The monologue seems like an idle, rambling complaint, but reveals a number of things about Varya, Anya, and the situation at home. We can see that, financially, things are very bad for them. The family can't afford to feed the former serfs who live on their land. And Varya responds, in her oversensitive way, by taking offense at their accusations that she's "mean" or cheap. Anya falls asleep, either unconcerned about the starving peasants or tired by Varya's pettiness.
Then the "peas" story comes up again in Act 2, when Lubov laments her flagrancy with money:
LUBOV. My poor Varya feeds everybody on milk soup to save money, in the kitchen the old people only get peas, and I spend recklessly. [Drops the purse, scattering gold coins] There, they are all over the place. (2.29)
"So it's true," we think. Varya is feeding them on peas. Lubov, charming as she may be, hurts more than herself with her fiscal irresponsibility, represented here by the simple, naturalistic detail of "scattering gold coins." She's also responsible for the discomfort of many others.
The beautiful white orchard means different things to different people. It represents Lubov's heritage and her youth – a disappearing paradise. For Gaev, it's a symbol of status, mentioned in the encyclopedia. For Lopakhin the cherry orchard is complicated; his attachment to Lubov makes him want to save it, while his memory of a difficult childhood urges him to destroy it. It's also a financial opportunity. Trofimov sees the orchard as a symbol of injustice, because of the way the aristocrats treated the peasants before the emancipation of the Serfs, and Anya gives up her sentimental attachment to it for a new life.
The breaking string sounds just before the homeless man enters in Act 2, and just after Fiers lies down at the end of the play. Different productions have handled it different ways. It could be the melancholy, nostalgic sound of a breaking guitar string. It could symbolize the discontinuation of memory. Overtly political productions have featured the sound of a snapping whip, a reminder of the family's dependence on slavery.
Chekhov called his play a "Comedy in Four Acts," provoking a famous argument with the director Stanislavsky (see "Genre"). What about the ending: the tearful eviction, the dying old man? It's sad! Can we break with Chekhov and call it a tragedy? Does it depend on who we name the protagonist (see "Character Roles")? Let's try it both ways.
Lubov, Gaev, Varya, and Anya are all confused about how to take action to save the cherry orchard. Lopakhin suggests leasing the land for summer estates, but they deny him. No one in the family sees a clear way forward.
Everyone's in a state of conflict at the picnic. Lubov blames Gaev for wasting money; Dunyasha's throwing herself away on Yasha; everyone teases Varya about Lopakhin; Lopakhin threatens to leave if they don't decide something about the cherry orchard. At the party, the servants upset Varya by drinking and playing pool; Pischik loses his money; Lubov and Trofimov argue. It's all a mess.
No more uncertainty. Lopakhin is triumphant. Gaev and Lubov are forced to relinquish the past. Trofimov and Anya embark on a union, released into a future they can choose for themselves.
Lubov resolutely leaves Paris behind and wants to make being home "work," despite financial difficulties and the looming memories of death.
If Lubov is the protagonist, she's an inactive one. Her efforts to save the cherry orchard (mostly repeating "I'm sure we'll think of something") make Gaev's look heroic.
Lubov irritably blames herself and Gaev for running the estate into the ground, and clings to Lopakhin in the hopes that he'll come up with a plan they can accept. At the party, she attacks Trofimov. The idea of Paris – and her sick lover – seem to sound better and better.
Lopakhin bought the orchard, and she knows what he'll do with it. The house, the nursery she loved, the orchard – they'll all be torn down.
While she struggles to present a brave front, a moment alone with Gaev reveals her Lubov's true feelings. She is shattered to leave the orchard.
The beginning of the play establishes the deep emotional attachment Lubov and others have to the cherry orchard. At this point, it is unthinkable that the estate could be lost.
Lopakhin, the pragmatist, shares his plan for the orchard: clear it and cut it up into lots. Lubov and Gaev would never consider such a thing.
In the very orchard that's the source of conflict, Lubov and Gaev simply enjoy its beauty. Lopakhin reminds them once more that the auction date is approaching and they must make a decision. Trofimov, while not a fan of Lopakhin's schemes, favors getting rid of the orchard. For him it's a symbol of injustice.
While trying to entertain, Lubov waits in agony for the men to return from the auction. Drumroll: Lopakhin bought it! He gives a big, dramatic speech in which the purchase of the orchard emerges almost as an act of revenge for his ancestor's servitude.
There's just a brief moment at the end of Act 3 – after Lopakhin has gloated and gone – when Lubov sits crying. Anya approaches her gently, reminding her that she still has her life to live. Will Lubov go somewhere new? Will she return to Paris?
Luggage is piled up as the family waits for the train – all of them dispersing to various locations. Lopakhin excitedly starts the clearing of the orchard.
It's the end of an era, and the era's last representative, Fiers, is left alone and dying.
Yes, you're right: Chekhov wrote his play in four acts, not three. This Three Act Plot Analysis is just another way of breaking up the text to understand the way it works. With the meandering structure of Chekhov's plays, we need all the help we can get.
While there are a number of story lines in the play, the main story question is, "will the cherry orchard be saved?" So "Act I" in this case does seem to encompass Chekhov's Act I, when the orchard's nostalgic value is made clear and Lopakhin introduces the challenge of finding an alternative to the impending sale.
In "Act II," which includes Chekhov's Act II and most of Act III, we watch as Lubov and Gaev do absolutely nothing substantial toward achieving their goal (saving the orchard). Lopakhin keeps encouraging them to make a decision, but they refuse. At the end of this "Act," Lopakhin reveals that he's bought the orchard.
The family vacates the house, and Lopakhin starts building.