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The story opens with a governement clerk called Ivan Dmitrich Tchervyakov sitting in a stall listening to opera. He is enjoying himself, but suddenly he sneezes. He wipes his face with a handkerchief and looks around the stall to see whether he had disturbed anyone. To his misfortune, Thchervyakov sees an old gentleman in front of him wiping his head and neck with a glove. The old gentleman is Brizzhalov, a civilian serving in the Department of Transport. He is not from Tchervyakov's department, but nonetheless an important man, so Tchervyakov decides he must apologize at once.
Tchervyakov leans forward and whispers an apology to the general's ear. Brizzhalov responds with "never mind," but Tchervyakov feels the need for further explanation. The general finds this annoying and tells Tchervyakov to forget about it and let him listen. Tchervyakov feels embarrassed and he is no longer able to enjoy the performance. He feels uneasy and tries to apologize again. Brizzhalov says he has already forgotten about it, but he looks impatient. Tchervyakov is under the impression that there is a 'fiendish light' in Brizzhalov's eye and that even though he says he has forgotten about it already, later he will think Tchervyakov spit on him on purpose.
When he comes home, Tchervyakov tells his wife about the accident. At first, she is a bit frightened, but when she learns that Brizzhalov is from different department, she does not find the matter so serious. Nevertheless, she suggests it would be better if Tchervyakov went and apologized.
The next day Thervyakov puts on a new uniform and goes to Brizzhalov to explain himself. When he arrives, he sees a number of petitioners and the general himself, who is interviewing them. After several petitioners are questioned, Tchervyakov starts speaking of his dreadful breach of manners. The general ignores him and continues questioning the petitioners. Tchervyakov thinks the general's lack of response means he is angry about the incident, so after the questionings are over he tries to apologize again. Brizzhalov accuses Tchervyakov of making fun of him. This makes Tchervyakov angry and he resolves to stop trying to apologize personally.
When Thervyakov arrives home, he decides to write a letter to Brizzhalov, but he is unable to make it up. He is left with no other option than to go to the general's office the next day and try to apologize in person once more. After he apologizes, the general feels seriously frustrated and shouts at Tchervyakov: "be off!" Thervyakov decides to go home; he feels sick and keeps staggering along. Upon his arrival, he lies down on the sofa and dies.
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Chekhov is the gentlest, subtlest, most modest, and most complex of the nineteenth century’s major authors. In an era when such titans as Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevski were concerned with the conflict of good against evil, Chekhov primarily saw the conflict of simplicity against pretension and found the consequences depressing. In the Russia of his time, choked with morality tales, nourished on progressive theories of history, lashed with messianic messages, Chekhov was ahead of his age, a lonely, restrained, melancholy man who remains, despite extensive scholarship and criticism, an ambiguous and elusive figure.
Chekhov is the moralist of the venial sin, seeing a soul damned not for murder, robbery, or adultery but for the small, universal faults of ill-temper, untruthfulness, miserliness, and disloyalty. In his short story “Poprygunya” (“The Grasshopper”), Olga Iranovna, who cheats on her dull doctor husband by having an affair with a mediocre, flashy painter, will not be damned for her adultery. Rather, she will be damned for her shallowness, superciliousness, and narcissism. Be truthful to yourselves and to others, Chekhov says in his art.
With his penchant for understatement and irony, Chekhov has had an overwhelming influence on both short-story writers and dramatists. He does not commit himself to any particular stance, does not issue moral imperatives to his public, and bequeaths no mystical enlightenment to a darkling humanity. Neither a prophet nor a system builder, Chekhov is a diagnostician who works unobtrusively and dispassionately but with great care and delicacy through the materials that life presents. He has no religion, accepting a world of comfortless indifference. He is averse to metaphysics and politics, romanticism and sentimentality. Unlike Tolstoy, he refuses to idealize the peasant class; he is disgusted by the crass materialism of the middle class; and he chronicles the drift, inertia, and self-pity of the upper class.
Yet Chekhov’s bleak vision of modern life does not lead him to regard existence as meaningless or people as absurd. Humane to the very marrow of his bones, he never loses sight of the qualities that make his characters affective beings even when analyzing them with tough and apparently impersonal candor, and he refuses to entertain false hopes about them or their world. In what has become a famous letter, Chekhov writes in October, 1889:I am not a liberal, a conservative, an evolutionist, a monk, or indifferent to the world. I should like to be a free artist—and that is all. . . . I regard trademarks or labels as prejudices. My holy of holies are the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom—freedom from violence and falsehood in whatever form these may be expressed.
Chekhov is passionately addicted to what he vaguely labels “culture,” by which he means an indefinable union of humanity, decency, intelligence, education, will, and accomplishment. Yet his tough intelligence tells him—and his audience—that people with these characteristics constitute a dwindling minority. Consequently, he afflicts most of his characters with such flaws as laziness, hypocrisy, pretentiousness, and self-destructiveness.
In everything that Chekhov writes, he refuses to claim for himself the brilliant, commanding powers that are often considered the essence of literary genius. His art is indirect, muted, and apparently casual; he loves to pose as an ideal eavesdropper who communicates an overheard conversation to the jury of his readers or spectators. He excludes whatever is maneuvered, subjective, theatrical, or otherwise grand. He is modest in both his matter and his manner, dealing with the pains of isolation and loneliness, frustrated ambitions, agonizing misunderstandings, forlorn hopes, boredom, and listlessness. He consistently questions the heroic mode, with his best fiction and drama representing lives from which the possibility of valor has been removed, with pathos and desolation displacing honor, admiration, or dignity. Even when his scenes are comic, the sound of heartbreak’s snapping strings is never distant.
Chekhov’s techniques are those of suggestion and implication, with the author meticulously invisible yet miraculously present. He has a remarkable gift for psychological acuteness and absolute control of tone—a subtle and unique blend of the melancholy, the farcical, the lyrical, and the ironic. He evokes atmosphere with marvelous skill, portrays elusive states of mind, and renders fleeting sensations and subtle effects by a masterful selection of telling details. Like a pointillist painter, Chekhov’s brush strokes may seem, at close range, monotonous and drab. Yet once readers step back to view the work from the proper distance, they will respond to the irresistible art of a supreme stylist and creator of mood.
Chekhov knows that both the tragedy and the comedy of life are precisely that they do not usually lead to a large crisis but dissolve in small ones. Thus, he avoids, in both his stories and his plays, the cumulative action that Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Émile Zola, and Fyodor Dostoevski favor. He insists on observing his characters in the apparently commonplace routine of their everyday lives.
First published: “Potseluy,” 1887 (collected in The Portable Chekhov, 1947)
Type of work: Short story
Lieutenant Ryabovich, a timid artillery officer, finds his life significantly changed as the result of a kiss in the dark.
The setting of “The Kiss” is a Russian village on a May evening. The officers of an artillery brigade encamped nearby are invited by a retired lieutenant general, the leading landowner in the village, to spend an evening dining and dancing in his residence. After describing a panoramic scene of aristocratic society, Chekhov focuses on one of the officers, Ryabovich, an inarticulate conversationalist, a graceless dancer, a timid drinker, and an altogether awkward social mixer. During the evening, he strays into a semidark room, which is soon entered by an unidentifiable woman, who clasps two fragrant arms around his neck, whispers, “At last!” and kisses him. Recognizing her mistake, the woman then shrieks and runs from the room.
Ryabovich also exits quickly and soon shows himself to be a changed man: He no longer worries about his round shoulders, plain looks, and general ineptness. He begins to exercise a lively romantic fancy, speculating who at the dinner table might have been his companion. Before falling asleep, he indulges in joyful fantasies.
The artillery brigade soon leaves the area for maneuvers. Ryabovich tries to tell himself that the episode of the kiss was accidental and trifling, but to no avail: His psychic needs embrace it as a wondrously radiant event. When he tries to recount it to his coarse fellow officers, he is chagrined that they reduce it to a lewd, womanizing level. He imagines himself loved by, and married to, the woman, happy and stable; he can hardly wait to return to the village, to reunite with her.
In late August, Ryabovich’s battery does return. That night, he makes his second trip to the general’s estate, but this time he pauses to ponder in the garden. He can no longer hear the nightingale that sang loudly in May; the poplar and grass no longer exude a scent. He walks a bridge near the general’s bathing cabin and touches a towel that feels clammy and cold. Ripples of the river rip the moon’s reflection into bits. Ryabovich now realizes that his romantic dreams have been absurdly disproportionate to their cause. When the general’s invitation comes, he refuses it.
It is a masterful tale, as Chekhov demonstrates his vision of life as a pathetic comedy of errors, with misunderstanding and miscommunication rooted in the psychic substance of human nature. Lieutenant Ryabovich, the least dashing and romantic of men, is transformed by the kiss meant for another into a person with a penchant for an intense inner life that runs its dreamy course virtually separate from the dreariness of external reality. He inflates an insignificant incident into an absurd cluster of fantasies centering on ideal love and beauty. All the more embittering, then, is his plunge from ecstasy to despair as he recognizes, in the story’s anticlimactic resolution, the falseness of his hopes, the frustration of his yearnings.
Chekhov dramatizes two of his pervasive themes in “The Kiss.” One is the enormous difficulty, often the impossibility, of establishing a communion of feelings between human beings. Ryabovich discovers that he cannot explain to his fellow officers his happiness that an extraordinary event has transformed his life. Lieutenant Lobytko regards Ryabovich’s experience as an opportunity to parade and exaggerate his own sexual adventures. Lieutenant Merzlyakov dismisses the lady in the dark as “some sort of lunatic.” The brigade general assumes that all of his officers have his own preference for stout, tall, middle-aged women.
The other great Chekhovian theme (which he shares with Nikolai Gogol) is the contrast between beauty and sensitivity, and the pervasiveness of the elusive characteristic best expressed by the Russian word poslost’. The term is untranslatable, but it suggests vulgarity, banality, boredom, seediness, shallowness, and suffocation of the spirit. Ryabovich, surrounded by the coarseness of his comrades, depressed by the plodding routine of artillery maneuvers, poignantly tries to rise above this atmosphere of poslost’ by caressing an impossible dream.
When Ryabovich returns to Lieutenant General von Rabbeck’s garden in late summer, “a crushing uneasiness took possession of him.” His exultant mood disappears as he confronts the prospect of a nonexisting reunion with a nonexisting beloved. Chekhov symbolizes Ryabovich’s feelings of rejection and disillusionment. As Ryabovich touches the general’s cold, wet bathing towel and observes the moon’s reflection, this time torn by the river waters, he has a shattering epiphany of heartbreak: “How stupid, how very stupid!” he exclaims, interpreting the endless, aimless running of the water as equivalent to the endless, aimless running of his life—of all lives. “To what purpose?”
First published: “Kryzhovnik,” 1898 (collected in The Portable Chekhov, 1947)
Type of work: Short story
A frugal minor official saves money to buy a country estate, which does not transform him into the benevolent landowner of his self-image.
“Gooseberries” is one of three linked Chekhov stories treating forms of desire, in which friends on holiday in the country relate remembrances as travels take them to different locations. In “Gooseberries,” the two companions, Burkin, a schoolmaster, and Ivan Ivanovitch, a veterinary surgeon, seek shelter at a welcoming friend’s farm. After the men wash up, they enter the comfortable house of their host, Alehin. There, the veterinarian agrees to tell a story about his younger brother, Nikolay, once an unhappy office-bound civil servant, who for years desires and dreams of buying a country estate near water with a garden, orchard, and, most particularly, gooseberries. Nikolay continues to dream and lives frugally, penny-pinching on food and clothes to save money. Then he marries an elderly rich widow, keeping her short of food while he banks her money in his name. The deprived lady conveniently dies, leaving him with sufficient savings to purchase the country estate.
Continuing his narrative, Ivan visits his now porcine brother on his estate and finds Nikolay a gluttonous, idle, self-satisfied landowner, convinced of salvation by such deeds of charity as treating all peasants’ ailments with castor oil and corrupting them with gallons of vodka on special holidays. Such condescension, Nikolay believes, permit the peasants to love him as their gentleman landowner. A sumptuous meal ends with home-grown gooseberries, which Nikolay excitedly eats with relish, claiming them delicious without perceiving that they are sour and unripe. Ivan feels guilt that he, too, has been content with his life without realizing that behind such idle satisfaction exists the poverty and suffering of the weaker. Ending his story, Ivan warns his friends that they rest easy in the happy smugness of country comfort because they do not hear the unhappy people who bear their burdens in silence. Further disquieting his companions, Ivan predicts that life will someday remind the contented that trouble will find them.
The narrative has two parts. The frame story concerns the farm visit, where all enjoy comfort, and, after hearing the inner story about the veterinarian’s brother, are warned by the storyteller about the complacency they all share as gentlemen. Ivan’s epiphany reflects Chekhov’s belief, stated in an 1898 letter, that leaving stressful city life for a comfortable country life can lead to a selfish existence without practicing good works. The story illumines Chekhov’s insightful perception of the human condition.
“The Lady with the Dog”
First published: “Dama s sobachkoi,” 1899 (collected in The Portable Chekhov, 1947)
Type of work: Short story
Two people married to other partners fall in love, only to face an uncertain future.
Alternately titled “The Lady with the Dog” or “The Lady with the Little Dog,” this story treats the theme of adultery, akin to Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1875-1877; English translation, 1886), and has a heroine with the same first name. Yet whereas Tolstoy pursues and punishes his Anna for having violated a social and moral law, Chekhov treats his Anna gently and compassionately in one of his most accomplished tales.
The plot can be briefly summarized. The banker Dmitry Dmitrich Gurov, a married but philandering man of almost forty, spends a vacation alone in the seaside resort of Yalta, where he meets and skillfully seduces a much younger lady, Anna Sergeyevna, who is also on holiday without her spouse. Their first encounter leads to a furtive and sporadic liaison, with Anna, who lives in a provincial town, having trysts with him in Moscow once every two or three months. Now deeply in love, the couple faces an unpredictable future. Chekhov ends the story on this indeterminate note.
Like a play, the narrative is divided into four parts, each of which deftly dramatizes a different phase of Anna and Dmitry’s romance. The first, of course, deals with their meeting in Yalta. The reader makes Dmitry’s acquaintance as a type: He is a cold-blooded roué, contemptuous of women as easy conquests yet compulsively erotic. He approaches Anna by fondling her dog, discovers that Anna is a gentlewoman who, like himself, is bored on holiday, and finds himself charmed by her shyness, slimness, and “lovely gray eyes.”
In part 2, they walk on the pier, Dmitry kisses her passionately, they have sex back at the hotel, and Anna is immediately remorseful, while he calmly cuts himself a section of watermelon. The alternation of Dmitry’s feelings between cynicism and lyricism recurs rhythmically. Chekhov treats Anna tenderly, rendering her shame and penitence as genuine, with her unconsciously assuming the posture of a classical Magdalen. When she leaves for home, both lovers assume that the brief affair has ended. He reflects that she overestimated his character in calling him “kind, exceptional, high-minded,” while his treatment of her was arrogantly condescending.
Part 3 starts with Dmitry busily immersed in his Moscow life and expecting Anna’s image to have filtered out of his memories within a month. Not so. He discovers himself in love with her and finds life without her “clipped and wingless.” He travels to Anna’s town to see her, only to find her house virtually sealed off by “a long gray fence studded with nails.” That is the first of a series of images of hardness, constriction, and enclosure. They symbolize the difficulty and sadness of a love between people both married to others. Anna’s town is the apotheosis of grayness: the fence, a gray carpet in the hotel room, a gray cloth covering the bed, the inkwell on the desk gray with dust.
Dmitry finds Anna attending a first night performance in the local theater. In the scene describing their reunion there, the tone of the tale assumes dramatic tension. Both speak in anxious, short, urgent exclamatory phrases. Dmitry, now realizing that his heart belongs to Anna, treats her deferentially and no longer worries whether onlookers can see them embracing. The best that they can do, however, is to meet on the theater’s narrow and gloomy staircase. She swears that she will visit him in Moscow and does so in part 4.
In Moscow, Anna and Dmitry find a pathetically marginal happiness together. Chekhov contrasts the scene in her hotel room there with that in part 2. Dmitry is now soft and considerate with Anna, no longer slightly bored and irritated. For the first time, he finds himself loving a woman unselfishly. The story’s concluding mood is one of gentle melancholia, of mingled joy and pain and sadness.
First produced: Chayka, 1896, rev. pr. 1898 (first published, 1904; English translation, 1909)
Type of work: Play
Confined to his mother’s provincial estate, a young writer finds his avant-garde work and his love rejected by both his successful actress mother and a girl he adores, and his ensuing despair leads to suicide.
The Seagull inaugurates the most significant portion of Chekhov’s career, when his major plays were written, and marks a departure from his earlier dramatic work, chiefly conventionally structured short plays with plots developing onstage climax and resolution. The Seagull and subsequent plays treat onstage the characters’ inner action and lives without typical plot progression, while keeping dramatic events offstage. The play’s production proved a disaster. Masterfully directed two years later at the new Moscow Art Theatre, it was a recognized success as a new dramatic form.
In the play’s first of four acts, a celebrated stage actress, Arkadina, returns to visit her estate with her younger lover and popular writer, Trigorin. There they, with her doddering brother Sorin and visitors, are given a performance of a murky symbolistic play by her son Konstantin. Its sole performer is a neighbor girl, Nina, whom Konstantin adores. When the play is rejected by both Arkadina and Trigorin as decadent, its author is devastated.
The second act reveals the characters’ unhappy lives fueled by unrequited love. Both the estate manager’s wife and her daughter, Masha, are rejected by those they love: respectively, physician Dr. Dorn and Konstantin. The latter jealously loves his dismissive mother, who strives to hold onto the self-absorbed Trigorin. Angry at Nina’s indifference to his play, Konstantin kills a seagull and gives it to her as a symbol of ruined hope before departing. Trigorin, meanwhile, is flattered by Nina’s affectionate admiration and is led to admit his success stems from his writing about mere trivialities. Observing the dead gull, he remembers a story idea about a girl who lives free as a seagull until she is a seen by a man who indifferently destroys her like the shot seagull.
In act 3, after a failed suicide attempt, Konstantin berates his departing mother for remaining with Trigorin, whom he calls a hack, and is rebuffed by her. Nina, now determined to leave her family and pursue an acting career, offers her love to Trigorin and arranges to meet him in Moscow.
The final act occurs two years later. Arkadina and the still celebrated Trigorin return to the estate to find that Konstantin has become a published writer. The aging Arkadina is trying to keep a grip on Trigorin and her fading glory as an actress. Masha, ever-devoted to Konstantin, has joylessly married a schoolmaster. Nina, a lowly provincial actress who still loves Trigorin, arrives in the vicinity. Konstantin has followed her unspectacular stage career and knows that Trigorin had left her with a child who died. Nina, still believing in her art, meets Konstantin, declines his urgent invitation to stay with him, and departs to continue her acting, Without her, Konstantin determines that his art and recognition are meaningless and shoots himself.
One underlying theme of the play is each character’s isolation and failure to achieve his or her dreams. Chekhov employs such dialogue devices as pauses, fragments of speech, and soliloquies to reveal a character’s inner self. Another thematic thread is the nature of art and artists. Four characters are artists reflecting individual attitudes. Konstantin’s working desire for new forms is undeveloped. His work is anathema both to his mother, whose fading career remains rooted in pseudorealistic theater, and to Trigorin, who aspires to treat vital issues but remains a popular hack. Despite Trigorin’s desertion and her plodding career, Nina rejects her family’s security and Konstantin to hold true to her art. The pervasive seagull metaphor represents not only Nina but the failed hopes and discontented lives of all the characters.
The Three Sisters
First produced: Tri sestry, 1901 (first published, 1901; English translation, 1920)
Type of work: Play
The Prozorov family of three sisters and one brother lead lives of quiet desperation in a provincial town.
Nowhere in modern drama is there greater majesty or fuller substance than in The Three Sisters. These qualities issue from Chekhov’s incomparable ability to make physical data yield moral truth, domestic irritation dilate into the great cage of cosmic suffering, and a single moment beat with the immeasurability of all time. Almost nothing “happens” in the play: His characters transmit no urgency, create no suspense, feel little tension. Yet The Three Sisters offers a psychic and spiritual eventfulness so dense, yet also so delicately organized, as to make the work one of the miracles of drama and certainly Chekhov’s masterpiece. No play has ever conveyed more subtly the transitory beauty and sadness of the passing moment. None has ever expressed more shatteringly the defeat of sensitive minds and generous hearts, the pathos of frustrated personal aspirations.
The play’s structure is woven of several separate strands of narrative, resulting in a complex dramatic texture. A highly educated Moscow family, the Prozorovs, were geographically transplanted eleven years earlier than the beginning action when the father, a brigadier general, took command of an artillery unit in a provincial town. The first scene opens on the first anniversary of his death, with the three daughters and one son living in their inherited house but wishing they were in Moscow. That city is seen by them through a haze of delusions as a center of sunshine, refinement, and sensibility, in contrast to the banality, stupidity, and dreariness of their town. This vision of Moscow is, of course, a mythical opiate. The Prozorovs never move there, preparing the reader/spectator for the play’s principal motifs of nonattainment and nonfulfillment.
Olga, the eldest sister, teaches school; Masha has married a dull local teacher, Kulygin; Irina, the youngest, has a position in the telegraph office; Andrey, the family’s pride, is expected to continue his studies at Moscow University and become a professor. All four are wonderfully reared, highly educated, sensitive, and unhappily stranded in a mediocre small town where only the officers of the garrison are of their class. Chekhov concentrates on the wasting away of this superior family in a coarse and sordid environment.
This milieu is personified by Natasha, a local girl whom Andrey marries, a pretentious, bourgeois, vicious, and vengeful person who is Chekhov’s most malevolent character. She dispossesses the Prozorovs by steady degrees in the drama’s course, taking control of the house’s mortgage money and shifting the family from room to room, until she has finally evicted them from the house. In the last act, Olga is installed in a municipal apartment, Irina has moved to a furnished room, and even Andrey is ejected from his section of the residence to make way for a baby sired by Natasha’s lover, Protopopov.
In typically Chekhovian manner, the conflict is usually kept indistinct. Andrey and his sisters are too polite or too deeply involved in their own problems or simply too weak to confront Natasha directly. Nevertheless, the contrast between the town’s natives (not only Natasha but also Kulygin and, offstage, Protopopov) and the Muscovites (the Prozorovs and certain artillery officers) provides the basic theme of the clash between culture and vulgarity. The Prozorovs permit the dreary town to brutalize them. Masha tries to find happiness through a liaison with a lieutenant colonel, Vershinin, also unhappily married; then his brigade must leave, and she is again sentenced to her unbearable pedant of a husband. Olga, doomed to spinsterhood, suffers from migraine headaches. Andrey, drained of his youthful vigor, resigns himself to a minor bureaucratic post and loses heavily at cards.
Irina’s story is more complicated: The most beautiful of the sisters, she is desired by a lieutenant, Baron Tusenbach, a cheerful soul despite a gloomy philosophy of life, and Captain Solyony, a disagreeable, menacing bully. For a while, Irina is tormented by dreams of Moscow and a perfect romance. Then she resigns herself to marrying the likable, decent Tusenbach, who has abandoned his commission to seek salvation through hard work in a brickyard, even though she does not love him. In act 4, however, Solyony, having sworn that if he cannot have Irina, nobody else shall, challenges Tusenbach to a duel and kills him.
Everything fails the Prozorovs. As their culture fades, Masha forgets her piano-playing skills, Irina is perpetually tired, Andrey trails through life aimlessly—the forces of darkness move in on them like carrion crows, slowly and relentlessly withdrawing all that once promised them contentment. The question that the play finally asks, articulated by Olga in her last speech, is whether the Prozorovs’ defeat has any ultimate meaning. According to Vershinin, it does: He has faith in the future, whose generations will be more productive and progressive, as civilization marches toward perfection. In a friendly debate, Tusenbach disagrees:Life will be just the same as ever not merely in a couple of hundred years’ time, but in a million years. Life . . . follows its own laws, which don’t concern us, which we can’t discover anyway.
Even gloomier is Chebutykin, a sixty-year-old physician who had once been in love with the mother of the Prozorov family and who has transferred that affection to Irina, having installed himself in the family circle. He takes refuge from his disappointment through alcohol, neglect of his medical knowledge, and a profound nihilism.
In the last act, Chebutykin does not raise a finger to prevent the Solyony-Tusenbach duel—he sees everything that comes to hurt the Prozorovs but never intervenes. With the family’s hopes shattered, the sisters huddle together, statuesque, motionless, defeated, listening as Olga muses, “if we wait a little longer, we shall find out why we live, why we suffer. . . . Oh, if we only knew, if only we knew!”
The Cherry Orchard
First produced: Vishnyovy sad, 1904 (first published, 1904; English translation, 1908)
Type of work: Play
The decline of the aristocracy is symbolized by Lyuba Ranevskaya’s loss of her cherry orchard.
Whereas Chekhov depicts the defeat of the cultured elite in one of drama’s saddest works, The Three Sisters, he examines the same problem from a more comic-ironic view in The Cherry Orchard. While Konstantin Stanislavsky staged the premiere of the play as a somber tragedy, Chekhov insisted, in letters about this production, on calling it “not a drama but a comedy, in places almost a farce.” Nonetheless, it has most often been performed as pathetic drama. Surely, its subjects are depressingly serious: the loss of an ancestral estate; the rise of a semiliterate, ambitious middle class to replace the aristocracy; the dispossession and scattering of the Ranevskaya family and household; and the guilt and remorse of Lyuba, who cannot resist her attachment to an unworthy man. The play’s concerns are loss, the failure to communicate and comprehend, and the death of an old order.
The Cherry Orchard presents a dilemma: The Ranevskaya family, which includes landowner Lyuboff (Lyuba) Andreena Ranevskaya, her brother Gayev, daughter Anya, and adopted daughter Varya, faces two alternatives that it finds equally unacceptable: either to lose the estate on the auction block because of its unpaid mortgage, or to destroy its uniqueness by chopping down its cherry trees and razing the residence to replace it with summer cottages. The second option, which will be exercised by the businessman who buys the orchard at auction, Yermolay Alexeevich Lopahin, offers what the gentry considers a vulgar economic solution at the expense of its cherished values of beauty and inspiration. In this situation, Mme Ranevskaya chooses not to act, thereby forfeiting the property.
Before the reader/spectator laments the losses dramatized, it would be well to understand precisely what is being lost, and why. Chekhov softens the act of dispossession by qualifying sympathy for the victims and complicating the character of the despoiler. Certainly, both Lyuba and Gayev, while charming and well intentioned, are a good deal less pathetic and attractive than their predecessors, the Prozorovs. Lyuba is irresponsible, negligent, and self-destructive. Her indolence and uncontrollable extravagance bring her house tumbling down. Granted, to her the orchard emblematizes childhood innocence, the elegance of the old, leisured, manorial nobility, culture, grace, purity, and beauty. Yet Lyuba’s visions of innocence and childhood have had to yield to her tarnished adulthood with its reckless adultery, girlishness, and inertia. Once the symbol of a vigorous way of life, the orchard now represents the decay and rottenness that have overtaken that life.
While the orchard reminds Lyuba of her pure childhood, it strikes the student-tutor Trofimov as a memento of slavery. He tells the seventeen-year-old Anya of the guilty dreams of Russia’s decaying upper class:Just think . . . your grandfather . . . and all your forefathers were serf owners—they owned living souls. Don’t you see human beings gazing at you from every cherry tree in your orchard . . . don’t you hear voices?
Eloquently idealistic though Trofimov is, he has his less engaging side. Chekhov is usually ironic at the expense of the activist, and he shows Trofimov as slothful, superficial, fatuous, and undersexed. The volatile Lyuba lashes out at him for urging her to confront the truth of her miserable situation; she stabs cruelly at his immaturity. Horrified, he rushes out of the room and tumbles down the stairs. After a remorseful Lyuba begs his pardon and dances with him, they forgive each other. Chekhov shows how his characters can lapse from dignity only to accentuate their humanity.
The self-made merchant/developer Lopahin plays a profoundly ambiguous role in the drama. He is the despoiler of the old order, who cannot restrain his class-conscious sense of triumph when he has acquired the orchard at the auction: He rightly calls himself “a pig in a pastry shop,” is brisk with the servants, pitiless with Gayev, and insensitive to Varya, who would like to marry him. Yet he is the most positive character in the play. He labors, with increasing exasperation, to bring the befuddled gentry to their senses. He is alone in having energy, purpose, dedication, and shrewdness enough to suggest how the estate can be converted into a profitable operation. He worships Lyuba and can refuse her nothing, though he despairs of her ability to survive. Most likely, she is the secret love of his life, furnishing the real reason why he will not marry Varya. Chekhov depicts Lopahin as generous, unpretentious, and free of malice; Lopahin’s motives are innocent, though his impact is destructive. In sum, Chekhov markedly softens the act of dispossession.
Moreover, he shows that what is being lost is not, in truth, an order of stability, familial love and unity, innocence and usefulness—these are already long gone. The destruction of the estate is the destruction of illusions, and the drama explores this double negative at many ambivalent and ironic levels of action, characterization, and theme. The governess Charlotta soliloquizes about her rootlessness and life’s emptiness then muffles her words by chewing on a cucumber and clowning. Gayev vows that the estate will not be sold, while continually popping candy into his mouth. Lyuba’s valet Yasha parodies her French manners, while her maid Dunyasha mimics her passionate nature. The rivalry of the clumsy clerk Yepihodov and the insolent Yasha for the affected Dunyasha is a travesty of romantic love. Old, deaf Firs, neglected and abandoned at the play’s end, is a relic of the obsolete days when the orchard’s cherries were abundant and sweet.