The Cherry Orchard

Have you ever lived in or visited a place you loved? What would you do to be able to go back there? What is it that made you leave? In Anton Chekhov's famous last play, The Cherry Orchard, the Ranevsky family is in debt and their beautiful ancestral home has to be auctioned off. Family and friends scramble to figure out what to do about the situation, but clear decisions and actions come too late. 

The Cherry Orchard The Cherry Orchard

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Table of contents

    The Cherry Orchard, Cherry trees, StudySmarter

    The Ranesvkys live on an estate with a gorgeous cherry orchard. The cherry orchards are often present in the backdrop of the play.

    Pixabay

    The Cherry Orchard: Anton Chekhov and Background Information

    The Cherry Orchard (1904) was the last play written by the famous Russian playwright and short story writer, Anton Chekhov (1860‐1904). Chekhov wrote the play between the years of 1901 and 1903. The play premiered on January 17, 1904, on Anton Chekhov's 44th and final birthday. Though suffering from tuberculosis, Chekhov was able to attend The Cherry Orchard's premiere at the Moscow Art Theatre just five months before his death.

    Anton Chekhov's Four Major Plays

    Anton Chekhov is known for writing four famous plays within eight years: The Seagull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1898), Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904). Each play was premiered at the Moscow Art Theatre under the director Konstantin Stanislavski. Chekhov wrote these plays as comedies, but he was never satisfied with the productions because they were performed as tragedies.

    While reading or after reading The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov, consider whether you think the play is more of a comedy or a tragedy. What makes you think so?

    The Cherry Orchard: Historical Context

    The story of The Cherry Orchard was greatly influenced by the social changes in Russia during the 1800s. Anton Chekhov's childhood was characterized by the rule of Tsar Alexander II (1818‐1881), who is also known as Alexander the Liberator. Under the rule of Tsar Alexander II, the Emancipation Declaration of 1861 was created, liberating serfs from slavery.

    Serfs were land laborers who were the property of landowners and lived as slaves.

    The freedom of serfs was highly controversial, as it led Russia towards a free-market economy, in which economic power was no longer purely held by the aristocratic, landowning class. The power of the upper class was diminished, as the lower class was finally able to rise above their previously restricted means. Chekhov explores this upheaval in social class structure in The Cherry Orchard, as a noble landowning family is forced to sell their estate to someone who was born to a serf family.

    Anton Chekhov's paternal grandfather was a serf who purchased his own freedom in 1841. Chekhov's family struggled greatly financially, and similar to in the play, they had to sell their estate to pay off their debts.

    The Cherry Orchard: Summary

    The Cherry Orchard is written in four acts, which is a characteristic of all of Anton Chekov's plays.

    The Cherry Orchard: Act I Summary

    In act one of the play, Lubov Ranevsky returns to her family home in Russia after being away in Paris for five years. Lubov’s daughter, Anya, was sent to bring her home. It is a chilly day in May and the cherry blossoms are in bloom. Lubov Ranevsky and Anya arrive to be greeted by friends, family, and the housekeepers and staff.

    Anya is extremely tired and she speaks with her sister, Varya, about the sad state she found her mother in Paris, where she had a French lover and lived among many strangers. Lubov went to Paris to escape her grief over the death of her husband followed by the drowning of her son. Anya explains that her mother is still careless with money, though they are in debt and have little left.

    Lubov and her brother, Gaev, express deep fondness for their ancestral home. However, the property will be auctioned off in three months' time, on August 22nd. Everyone is trying to figure out what to do about the financial situation, as Lubov is emotional and not good with money. She continues to live as if she is wealthy, being generous with whoever asks from her.

    A family friend and former peasant who is now a successful businessman, Lopakhin, helps Lubov financially. He insists that the solution to the family’s financial troubles is to rent out the land by the rivers and the cherry orchard so that villas can be built there. The income from the rent would grant the family great financial security. However, Lubov is reluctant because it would require demolishing the house and the grand cherry orchard. On the other hand, Lubov’s sentimental brother, Gaev, proposes reaching out to wealthy friends and a wealthy aunt for money to save the estate.

    The Cherry Orchard, prime land for summer houses by the river, StudySmarter

    Villas are large country houses. Lopakhin suggests that the Ravensky's land by the river is prime land for people to build summer houses.

    Pixabay

    The Cherry Orchard: Act 2 Summary

    Lubov, Gaev, and Lopakhin appear arguing about what to do with the estate. Lopakhin grows increasingly frustrated with Lubov for not agreeing to portion off her land and rent it out for new construction. Lubov and Gaev both cannot fathom selling their precious home to have villas built on the property.

    Lubov admits that she is terrible with money and has been continuing to give and spend thoughtlessly. She despairs over her situation and the sins of her past, revealing that her husband died of alcoholism and just after, she fell in love with another man. She sees it as her punishment that her son drowned in a river soon after her husband's death. Lubov went to Paris to care for her lover who fell ill, and was so tired out by him that she tried to poison herself.

    Peter Trofimov arrives and gives long speeches about the Russian intellectuals and aristocrats who simply talk about what is going on but are lazy and do not actually take action. He stresses the importance of hard work to move the nation forward.

    The Cherry Orchard, People talking instead of working, StudySmarter

    There is irony in Trofimov's rants about people talking rather than working because he does not have a job himself. He is teased for being a perpetual student.

    Pixabay

    A beggar approaches and asks Lubov for money. She gives him gold without a second thought, and everyone leaves frustrated with her. Only Anya and Trofimov remain. Trofimov explains that together, and away from the others, they can be happy and free. Trofimov and Anya walk towards to river in the moonlight as Varya is heard calling in the distance.

    The Cherry Orchard: Act 3 Summary

    Act three opens on August 22nd at a final party at the house. It is attended by the Ravenskys, the house help, Pischin, Trofimov, and government officers.

    Lubov is worried because her brother is not back yet. She thinks that his endeavors to borrow money from their aunt to buy their family estate have failed. Varya tries to assure her that their grandmother sent money for their uncle to purchase the estate, but Lubov says that she has not sent nearly enough.

    Trofimov teases Varya by calling her Madame Lopakhin, and the conversation turns again to Varya and Lopakhin’s marriage. Varya reminds her mother that it is up to Lopakhin to propose, and he has never even taken the idea of a relationship between them seriously. Varya runs off upset due to Trofimov’s comments.

    Lubov asks Trofimov to ease her anxieties and he suggests she must face the truth with clarity. Lubov tells Trofimov that she has lost her clarity and what she hangs onto is this house and this cherry orchard, where her entire family lived and her son died. She asks Trofimov to have pity on her and he says that he does sympathize.

    A telegram falls to the floor and Trofimov picks it up. Lubov informs him that her lover from Paris has been writing her each day to come back. He uses her and has left her with nothing, but Lubov says she loves him and cannot live without him. The two argue and Lubov tells Trofimov that he cannot understand because he has never loved and he does nothing useful with his life. Trofimov runs off upset and falls down the stairs, but soon comes back and reconciles with Lubov. Everyone dances.

    Lopakhin and Gaev enter, and Gaev is upset. Lopakhin explains to everyone that he has bought the cherry orchard, and revels in how it is now his. He explains how his father and grandfather were slaves on this property, and he has risen from an uneducated and abused child to the owner of the most beautiful estate. He declares that the cherry orchard will be chopped down and the future generations of the rising lower class will see a new future on this land.

    Lubov is seen weeping along in the drawing room. Anya kneels before her as she cries and assures her that she will one day smile once again.

    The Cherry Orchard: Act 4 Summary

    Act four opens to the mostly emptied house. It is the day that everyone is leaving and moving out. The family is collecting their things. Lopakhin is leaving the house at the same time as the family, as he will work in Kharkov until the Spring. Anya is going off to school, and Lubov is going back to Paris and taking Yasha with her as he requested. Gaev is going to start a new job as a bank official.

    Lubov worries that Varya will have nothing to occupy her now that the house has been sold. She reminds Lopakhin that she wanted him to marry Varya. Lopakhin replies that he is not sure why he has not proposed to her but that he will do so straight away. Lubov calls Varya into the room and she announces that she is moving to look after another family’s house. Lopakhin says that he has lots of business to do and does not propose.

    Everyone except Lubov and Gaev leaves the house. When no one is around they embrace each other and weep over the loss of the estate. Finally, they both leave and Lopakhin locks up the house.

    Though the family believed that Fiers was taken to the doctor earlier that day, as he had fallen sick, he was actually left behind in the locked house. He tries to open the door but cannot. He mumbles to himself about being forgotten and lies down to hear the sound of the cherry trees being chopped down in the distance.

    The Cherry Orchard: Characters

    The characters in The Cherry Orchard consist primarily of the Ranevsky family, their domestic help, and a few family friends.

    The characters are sometimes referred to by their first names and at other times by their last names, so it is important to get acquainted with the Russian names.

    Lubov Andreyevna Ranevsky

    Lubov Ranevsky is the cherry orchard estate owner. She is the matriarch whom the story revolves around. Lubov's husband died of alcoholism, and her son drowned in a river shortly after. She ran away to Paris for five years with her lover. Lubov is known for being careless with money. Lubov represents the upper-class that is used to a certain way of life despite the changing times and circumstances.

    Anya

    Anya is Lubov Ranevsky's 17-year-old daughter. She is treated as the baby of the family. She is sent with a governess to Paris to fetch her mother after hearing about her suicide attempt. Anya is the favorite of the Ranevsky family. She is sweet and innocent and tries to comfort her mother.

    Varya (Barbara)

    Varya is the adopted daughter of Lubov Ranevsky, who is 27 years old. Varya is the typical hard-working elder sibling. She cares for the home and family affairs. It is mentioned several times that Varya is supposed to marry Lopakhin, but he never proposes. Varya wants to be a nun but her family does not have the financial means to allow her to go.

    Leonid Gaev

    Gaev is the brother of Lubov and the uncle of Anya and Varya. He talks in winding, long speeches and the family often tells him to stop. Gaev is highly sentimental about the family home and attempts to save it by borrowing money from his wealthy aunt and friends. However, he is unsuccessful.

    Ermolai Alexeyevitch Lopakhin

    Lopakhin is a wealthy businessman who was the son of a serf. His father was an alcoholic who abused and belittled him. Lopakhin is a family friend of the Ranevskys as his family used to work for them and Lubov was kind to him as a child. Lopakhin insists that the solution to Lubov's financial troubles is to rent out her land for the building of villas. However, she refuses and Lopakhin ends up buying the cherry orchard himself.

    Lopakhin represents the rising lower class, as he explains how he bought a beautiful property where his father and grandfather were slaves who were not even allowed to enter to kitchen. Lopakhin often has good intentions, but he is ultimately money and business-oriented.

    Peter Sergeyevitch Trofimov

    Peter Trofimov was the former tutor of Lubov's deceased son, Grisha. Trofimov is like family to Lubov. He is a radical intellectual who is mocked for being a perpetual student, as he is nearly 30 and studies rather than having a formal career. Trofimov goes on long rants about how the problem with aristocrats and intellectuals in Russia is that they only talk about issues, but do not work hard to fix or change anything. Trofimov is a foil to Lopakhin, as he is not materialistic in the slightest, but seeks truth and change.

    A foil character is a character that serves to contrast another character to highlight differing traits and values.

    Fiers

    Fiers is the 87-year-old footman who has been with the family for ages. He is slightly senile and often speaks about the good old days before the Emancipation, when serfs knew their place and their purpose in society. At the end of the play, Fiers is mistakenly left locked inside the house and mumbles about being forgotten. It is suggested that he dies trapped inside the house. Chekhov uses the character of Fiers to point out how quickly things move in society and how those who do not change get left behind.

    The Cherry Orchard: Setting

    The Cherry Orchard is set on a beautiful estate in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. This was a historical period of great social change, as the lower class had opportunities to work their way up the social ladder as the power of nobility lessened. The setting and tone of the play are heavily influenced by the nature of the land and the sentimentality of the ancestral home. At the beginning of the play, it is a frosty day in May and the cherry blossoms are in bloom. This reflects that there is both beauty and tension in the scene to come, as Lubov returns home and family and friends are joyously reunited. The family admires their ancestral home, but also knows it will be sold soon.

    The Symbolism of the Cherry Orchard

    The cherry orchard is always present in the backdrop of the story. Blooming cherry trees are a symbol of beauty, but they also have a rapid decay as their blooms only last for a short period of time. Anton Chekhov uses the cherry orchard as a symbol of beauty and change. The cutting down of the cherry orchard is something that is constantly looming over the Ranevsky family. They are a reminder to the family that their happiness and comfort in the ancestral home cannot last.

    The cherry orchard also symbolizes tradition. While Lubov and Gaev strongly want to hold onto the cherry orchard and their upper-class standards of living, Trofimov wants to part with the old and make way for new people and new opportunities. Through the characters' differing views about the fate of the cherry orchard, Anton Chekhov cleverly presents the opposing views of the traditional upper and lower classes during this historical period of social change.

    The Cherry Orchard: Themes

    The main themes in the play are change and identity, money and work, love and freedom.

    Change and Identity

    The Cherry Orchard reflects how social change enacts change in people's personal lives. The rising status of the working and former servile class, and the decline of power held by the upper class leaves the characters in new positions in their lives. The Ranevskys have to learn to live without wealth and luxury. The domestic help has to learn to live outside the confines of their roles on the estate as their identities are tied to their work, but now they must move on to new jobs elsewhere. Lopakhin seems to have adapted well from the son of a serf to a wealthy businessman, but he becomes overly focused on business to the extent that he becomes insensitive.

    Lopakhin's identity is tied to his poor and troubled past. Similarly, Lubov's and Gaev's identities are tied to the cherry orchard and their family home. All the characters have to find their new identities outside of traditional class-defined roles and expectations.

    Money and Work

    Money is a frequent subject of conversation and conflict throughout the play. Different characters present different views regarding its importance; Lubov is carelessly generous with her money, Lopakhin is generous but also smart with his money, and Trofimov believes that truth should be sought after rather than money. The asking for and offering of money is so prevalent throughout the play that the mention of money becomes comical.

    Anton Chekhov compares and contrasts the theme of money with the theme of work. In Lopakhin's case, money and work are related, as he has risen from poverty through hard work and a sharp business mindset. On the other hand, Trofimov rants about how the wealthy intellectuals only talk and do not work to change anything. Understandings of work and money are tied to people's identities. Chekhov presents work as something that gives people purpose, as Lubov worries that Varya will be lost without her work managing the house, and the house helpers are lost because the orchard is being sold.

    Love and Freedom

    Anton Chekhov sets up many possible romantic relationships in the text, but none of them come to anything in the end. Lopakhin never proposes to Varya, Dunyasha never replies to Epikhodov, and Anya and Trofimov both go to pursue their own studies. Ultimately, everyone goes on to live their own lives and find their own freedom instead of pursuing romantic love.

    Lubov is the character who speaks the most about love and she is the only one who pursues romantic love in the end, returning to her lover in Paris. Though Lubov knows this man is not good for her, she says, "This love is a stone round my neck; I'm going with it to the bottom, but I love that stone and can't live without it" 1 (Act 3). Lubov conflicts the ideas of love and freedom as her strong attachment to her lover appears to make her devoid of options, but ultimately she acts freely in choosing to leave her family to return to her lover.

    The Cherry Orchard: Ending and Meaning

    At the end of The Cherry Orchard, all the characters have new futures lying ahead of them. There is opportunity in the air tinged with sadness, as the family and friends are all going their separate ways and the house and orchard are to be demolished. Each character leaves the house to embark on a new part of their life except for Fiers, who is left behind locked inside the house. He lies down, succumbing to his fate, and hears the cherry trees being chopped down in the distance.

    The ending of the play suggests the rapidity of change and how those who do not go along with it are left behind entirely. Fiers is an old man who is stuck in the past in his mindset of traditional roles and classes. However, he cannot do anything to prevent the change; he is locked inside and must simply listen to the cherry trees being chopped down.

    Along with change comes the idea of how quickly things are forgotten. Fiers is a servant who has been with the family longer than anyone else, yet they do not even personally say goodbye to him. The sadness of this situation and Fiers' isolation represents the feelings of lostness many people felt during this period of rapid change.

    The Cherry Orchard - Key takeaways

    • The Cherry Orchard (1904) is a play written by the Russian playwright and short story writer, Anton Chekhov.
    • The Cherry Orchard takes place on the Ranevsky's estate in Russia during the turn of the 20th century when there was great social change.
    • The play is written in four acts and centers around Lubov Ranevsky, who is in debt and her beloved ancestral estate, which must be auctioned off.
    • The Cherry Orchard focuses on the themes of change, identity, money, work, love, and freedom.
    • At the end of The Cherry Orchard, the orchard is cut down in order to make space for new villas.

    1 Anton Chekhov (translated by Julian West), The Cherry Orchard, 1904.

    Frequently Asked Questions about The Cherry Orchard

    When does The Cherry Orchard take place?

    The Cherry Orchard takes place at the Ranevsky's estate in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. 

    Who wrote The Cherry Orchard?

    Anton Chekov wrote The Cherry Orchard. 

    What is the cherry orchard about?

    The Cherry Orchard is about a family who is in debt and is forced to auction off their ancestral estate. 

    Why is The Cherry Orchard a comedy?

    The Cherry Orchard was written as a comedy by Anton Chekhov. It is a comedy because the characters are often absurd, sarcastic, or oblivious to their surroundings. 

    What does the cherry orchard symbolize?

    The cherry orchard symbolizes temporary beauty and change. The chopping down of the cherry orchard symbolizes an end to traditional class structures and ways of life.

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