If one were looking for an overview of the Russia of the 19th century, reading Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard does it all. This brilliant play depicts, correctly, to the minutest detail the Russia at the time of the revolutions. The writer though is very clever at doing so, for one wouldn’t get anything out of it if he were to see only the surface appearance, it may seem too trivial, it is only through greatest scrutiny of every single word and gesture that one understands the real meaning and importance of the work.
The main theme of the play is that of social change that had consumed Russia of that time therefore, it is essential for any person reading a Russian piece of literature to first read a little about the nation’s historical background. Other major themes of this play are memory and past and the modern more revolutionized Russia vs. the old the more traditional one. The theme of memory and past is weaved cleverly through the storyline. Memory as a theme serves two purposes, it acts as a source of personal identity and also as a torment for some, so that the characters are both trying to remember the past and also at the same time struggling to forget it.
Ranevsky, the protagonist of the play, is talking mostly about how good the past had been and the centre of all her memories is the orchard itself, but at the same time there is the loss of her dead son linked with the orchard which she is trying to forget and says in reference to her dead son:
“I went abroad, left forever, never to return.”
Lopakhin on the other hand has only bitter memories associated with the orchard, he resents fiercely his peasant background and pretends always to have got over it, when in fact it torments him ceaselessly and in the end having bought the orchard himself he expresses his triumph over the aristocrats in the following words:
“I bought the estate where my grandfather and father were slaves, where they weren’t even allowed to g into the kitchen.”
Trofimov, the philosopher of the play, is concerned more with the historical aspect of Russia. He talks passionately about reformation and is critical of the learned people, but in him we see the inactiveness of the critical minds, for he talks and talks and do nothing. For him the orchard triggers the memory of the serfs who worked there, and he comments to Anya about it:
“….to own human souls it has transformed every one of you, don’t you see those who lived before and those living today.”
Firs probably is the only character in the play who talks of the past, not for the grandeur of the times, but for the forgotten traditions and values which were once held so dear by the people of Russia. He solely lives wholly in the past, whereas the other characters are bordering over the past and the present by his remark on the making of the cherry jam:
“They’ve forgotten. No one remembers it.”
He is implying that people now have forgotten their traditions.
Another important theme running through the play is that of modernity vs. old traditions. Where Lopakhin and Trofimov stand for modern standards of living, Ranevsky and Firs are content with living in the memory of the past. Modernity in Russia brought with itself three things that almost made up the definition of the term, rationalism, secularism and materialism. Modernity physically is implied through the telegraphic poles in act 2. We can take the example of Dunyasha always powdering herself, being only a servant in the house, which shows modernity of manners. The reaction to this revolutionary modernity is the theme for most of the writers of the 19th century. There were those who favored the glorious past and those who wanted to move on, also there were those who presented both sides of the argument and left it on the reader to decide what they would vouch for. Whereas Dostoevsky creates flawless ideals, Chekhov balances both aspects deftly. The death of Firs in the end, having been left alone and forgotten in the house, clearly implies the good old values left behind, with all the others moving on.