It is nearly dawn on a frosty morning in May. In the yard of a grand estate, a large cherry orchard is in bloom; a serving-girl named Dunyasha enters a room “which is still called the nursery” many years after it has been used as such to find Lopakhin in a chair with a book in his hand. Lopakhin realizes Dunyasha brings news of a train’s arrival; it is nearly two in the morning, and growing light already, and the train is over two hours late. Lopakhin came to meet the owner of the estate, Madame Ranevsky, at the station, and chides Dunyasha for letting him fall asleep in his chair.
The opening scene, which shows Lopakhin alone in a room of Madame Ranevsky’s house as if in charge of the place while the cherry orchard is visible from the window, foreshadows the play’s central conflict—the struggle between Lopakhin and Ranevsky for control and ownership of the estate and the orchard.
Lopakhin recalls a time when he was fifteen years old. His father had struck him in the face and made him bleed; Madame Ranevsky came out to the courtyard, brought the young Lopakhin inside, and cleaned his wounds. She assured the “little peasant” that things would get better for him as he grew older. Lopakhin muses that Ranevsky’s prediction has come true: though he grew up the son of a peasant, he is now dressed finely, and has “turned rich.”
Lopakhin’s rising station in life is indicative of the social change that is taking place all across Russia. The middle class is emerging, fighting for rights and relevance—and Lopakhin, whose childhood was difficult and often painful, is at the forefront of the movement.
Lopakhin notices that Dunyasha is trembling and asks her what the matter is. She answers that she feels faint. Lopakhin chides Dunyasha for attempting to act “too refined”—she is dressed like a lady, and adopting a lady’s affectations, but ought to remember that she is only a maid after all.
Dunyasha is a serving girl, and of a class lower than Lopakhin, yet even she too is striving to adopt the mannerisms of the upper class and the aristocracy. The social change sweeping Russia has affected everyone.
Ephikhodof, the estate’s clerk, enters with a bouquet. His boots squeak noisily as he comes into the room. He hands the bouquet to Dunyasha and tells her it comes from the gardener, who has picked it for the dining room. Dunyasha goes off to put the flowers away and retrieve a beverage for Lopakhin. Ephikhodof makes small talk with Lopakhin about the weather and his squeaky boots, but Lopakhin does not engage with the man, and instead tells him he’s annoying. Ephikhodof resignedly states that though each day some misfortune befalls him, he is used to such misery, and always smiles through it. Dunyasha returns, and he leaves.
The bumbling, self-pitying Ephikhodof here provides comic relief. In squeaky shoes, with a cloud of misery over his head, Ephikhodof seems resigned to his destiny to fail and suffer—as the play goes on, this sentiment will be explored more deeply, and the dark side of Ephikhodof’s character will come to light.
Dunyasha confides in Lopakhin the fact that Ephikhodof has proposed to her—she is uncertain of what to do about it. Though she is fond of him—and though she knows he “adores” her—he is an unfortunate man who has earned for himself the nickname of “Twenty-two misfortunes.” Lopakhin hears Madame Ranevsky approaching. Dunyasha says she’s so excited she’s going to faint, and the two of them run outside to meet the approaching carriages. A hubbub is heard in the next room as the elderly servant Firs enters the nursery from outdoors, having collected Ranevsky from the train station. Alone in the room, he mumbles to himself incoherently.
As the house begins coming back to life, Chekhov sets up the relationships that will be tested as the play’s action commences in earnest. Dunyasha’s desire to rise above her station means that even though she likes Ephikhodof well enough, she is unsure about committing to him—the interpersonal drama between characters will expand and deepen as more servants like Firs and members of the aristocracy like Ranevsky are introduced.
Ranevsky, her daughters Anya and Barbara, and Anya’s governess Charlotte enter the room in a bustle. Gayef (Ranevsky’s brother), Lopakhin, Dunyasha, and a neighbor named Pishtchik are with them. The teenaged Anya is overjoyed to be home, as is Ranevsky, who looks around the nursery with joyful tears in her eyes. Barbara, who has stayed on as the lady of the house in Ranevsky’s absence, assures Ranevsky and Anya that their rooms have been kept the same as they were when Ranevsky left. Ranevsky comments that the nursery was the room she used to sleep in as a little girl; beginning to cry, she confesses she still feels like a little girl.
The house springs to life as Ranevsky and her coterie return. Ranevsky and Anya—who have been away from the house for five years and a few months, respectively—are overjoyed to return to their house, and clearly emotionally invested in the place, which holds many memories for both of them. Ranevsky feels herself transformed by returning to the house.
The group hurries from the room to explore the rest of the house; Anya and Dunyasha stay behind. As Dunyasha helps Anya remove her overcoat and hat, Anya complains that she did not sleep at all on the four-day journey from Paris. Dunyasha, overcome with excitement, tells Anya that Ephikhodof has proposed to her while Anya has been away collecting her mother from France. Anya seems bored, and more concerned with her own messy hair than Dunyasha’s news. When Dunyasha tells Anya that a man named Trophimof has arrived at the house, though, Anya brightens up.
Anya is shown here to be largely unconcerned about anyone other than herself—especially the servants. She brightens at Trophimof’s name, but before that, pays absolutely no attention to Dunyasha’s news. Dunyasha, meanwhile, is attempting to connect with her lady Anya by relaying to her news that she thinks Anya will find exciting, revealing Dunyasha’s desire to grow closer to Anya, a member of the social class she aspires to.
Barbara comes back into the room, and sends Dunyasha to go prepare coffee for Madame Ranevsky. Dunyasha leaves, and Barbara fawns over Anya, grateful that her “pretty one” is back. Anya describes all she has been through—she left for Paris last month, and has had to endure the company of the odd Charlotte, who kept trying to amuse her with card tricks, for weeks. Barbara apologizes for sticking Anya with Charlotte, but reminds Anya that she could not have traveled so far alone at only seventeen.
Anya again sees the people who serve her and make her life more comfortable and safe as a nuisance. She laments having to travel across the continent with her governess, who performed lame tricks—even though Charlotte, in this description, seemed to be literally bending over backwards to entertain and comfort Anya.
Anya describes arriving in Paris to find her mother living on the fifth floor of a large house, entertaining a strange group of people. Barbara can hardly stand to hear how their mother was living. Anya tells Barbara that their mother doesn’t have a penny left—and yet Ranevsky is still living beyond her means, dining in expensive restaurants, tipping waiters lavishly, and doting on her manservant Yasha, who is a “rascal.” Anya asks if the interest on the house’s mortgage was paid while she was away, and Barbara sadly replies that it hasn’t—the property is due to be sold in August.
Anya and Barbara worry about their irresponsible, spendthrift mother, whose five-year excursion to Paris (a selfish and solitary endeavor) has compromised her family’s financial standing—and possibly even her daughters’ futures.
Lopakhin interrupts the sisters’ tense moment by making a sound at the door. Barbara shakes her fist at him, and he goes away. Anya asks if Lopakhin has proposed to Barbara yet. Barbara answers that though everyone around seems to believe the two will get married, Lopakhin is so busy with his business that he hasn’t asked her yet. Dunyasha returns with coffee, and Barbara laments the family’s hardships. If only, she says, they could find a way to marry Anya off to a rich man, all of their debts would be paid, and Barbara would be able to get free of the house and stop worrying about how to keep it in good standing. Outside, birds begin chirping; Barbara remarks how late it is and ushers Anya off to bed.
The girls see their only prospects of financial rescue as entering into a smart marriage. Anya wants Barbara to marry Lopakhin, while Barbara has even loftier dreams for her younger sister Anya.
Yasha enters, and Dunyasha reminds him of who she is—he has been living abroad a long while, and she is worried he will not remember her. Yasha aggressively gropes her; Dunyasha screams and drops a saucer. Yasha exits quickly. Barbara comes back in to ask what all the commotion is; Anya follows her, dreamily reflecting on the horrors their family has endured recently. Six years ago, Ranevsky’s husband died; just a month later, her youngest son, Grisha, drowned in the river at only seven years old. Their mother ran away to Paris without looking back. Anya worries that the arrival of Trophimof—who was Grisha’s tutor—will bring up awful memories.
Anya and Barbara are blind to their servants’ dramas (and traumas), focused only on the pain their own family has suffered. Though Ranevsky has truly been through a lot, and the problems she has faced are significant, the girls are obsessed with the past and unaware of the suffering and oppression still happening all around them.
Firs enters, babbling to himself. His mistress has come home again, he says; he is so happy he feels he could die in peace now. Ranevsky, Lopakhin, Gayef, and Pishtchik reenter as well. Anya goes off to bed, kissing her mother and uncle goodnight. Barbara tells Lopakhin and Pishtchik to head home, but Ranevsky insists the men stay for coffee. Lopakhin expresses his happiness at having Ranevsky back; though he has changed a lot, he says, he wants for her to see him as she once did, through her “wonderful, touching eyes.” Lopakhin marvels at how though his father was Ranevsky’s father’s serf, he loves Ranevsky like a sister—she has done so much for him over the years. He wishes he could say something more “charming and delightful” to Ranevsky, but must be off to catch the train, and has bad news to deliver before he does.
Though Ranevsky is a member of the aristocracy—and, considering all the social upheaval in Russia, in a position where she could be much-hated—she seems to command respect, loyalty, and even love. Firs is so devoted to her that he seems to have no other purpose in life than making her happy, while Lopakhin desires her approval and attention despite the fact that he is in the awkward position of having once been part of a family in service to her as well.
Lopakhin explains that in order to pay the interest on the estate, the whole thing has been put up for auction at the end of August. He encourages Ranevsky not to fret—he has a plan for how she can save her home. The property is in a desirable part of town, close to both the railway and the river. If Ranevsky parcels her land up, puts villas on each acre, and leases them out, she can make good money and keep her land—this plan, though, requires cutting down the cherry orchard to make room for the villas. Angered, Ranevsky declares she’ll never cut down the orchard—it is the most “remarkable” thing about the whole province.
Lopakhin warns Madame Ranevsky that she is in trouble—but in the same breath, offers her a solid plan for saving her estate, orchard, and fortune. Ranevsky, though, stubbornly refuses to even entertain the idea. As the play goes on, the cherry orchard will become symbolic of struggle between the old guard and the new; the aristocracy and the burgeoning middle class. Ranevsky’s stubbornness—and Lopakhin’s ambition—will clash again and again as they struggle to assert their own way of life.
Lopakhin remarks that the only “remarkable” thing about the orchard is how infrequently it blooms. He advises Ranevsky to commit to his plan—there is no other way to save the property. Firs begins babbling about how in the olden days the cherries used to be harvested, dried, and sold in the cities. Gayef tells Firs to “shut up.” Ranevsky asks Firs why no one does this with the cherries now—no one remembers how to, Firs answers. Lopakhin urges Ranevsky to see that whereas villages were once full of only landed gentry and their serfs and peasants, an emerging middle class (“villa residents”) has now sprung up all across the countryside.
Lopakhin attempts to get Ranevsky to see that the orchard has no value other than sentimental value—but for Ranevsky, a person on the verge of losing everything but her memories, sentimentality is a kind of lifeblood. Firs, a servant, also longs for the past, and the traditions and customs that have been left behind as the years have marched on.
Gayef dismisses this as “gibberish.” Barbara enters with a telegram for Ranevsky. Ranevsky promptly rips it up, as it is from Paris, and she is “done” with Paris. Gayef begins talking about a cupboard in the nursery—it is one hundred years old, and though “inanimate,” it is “historic.” He begins talking to the cupboard itself, honoring it as “beloved and venerable” and thanking it for serving their family for so many generations. Lopakhin says he needs to leave—he promises to come again in a few weeks. He says goodbye to everyone, and when he reaches Ranevsky, he urges her to consider his idea about the villas—if she accepts his proposal, he’ll give her 5,000 pounds on the spot. Barbara chides Lopakhin for bothering her mother, and Lopakhin leaves hastily.
In this passage, Ranevsky attempts to sever herself from a part of her (recent) past, while her brother Gayef waxes poetic and at great length about an inanimate object which, like the cherry orchard, has only sentimental value now. Lopakhin can hardly stomach this display of selfish sentimentality, and, on his way out, even attempts to bribe Ranevsky into carrying out his plan—which is for her own good.
Gayef calls Lopakhin a snob, and then apologizes, as he realizes Barbara is rumored to be betrothed to him. Pishtchik says that Lopakhin is a “worthy individual.” He asks Ranevsky to borrow money from her—his own interest is due tomorrow. Barbara and Ranevsky insist they have no money; Pishtchik assures them he’ll find some, somehow. Last time interest was due, he thought he’d never come up with it—but a railway was laid down through his land, and he was compensated. Something unexpected, he says, will surely happen again; maybe his wife will even win the lottery.
There is a complicated social web that the characters are balancing on precariously. Barbara is in a position in which she needs to marry Lopakhin to save her own estate, though he is of a lower social class. Pishtchik, though himself a member of the landed gentry, is so strapped for cash that he has found himself at the mercy of Ranevsky—or a miracle. The aristocracy, who once had everything, now need to rely on members of other social classes (or even fate) to continue the life they once took for granted.
Ranevsky has finished her coffee and insists it’s time for bed. Barbara remarks that the sun has come up—she goes to the window and opens it, allowing in the sweet orchard air and the sound of starlings. Gayef and Ranevsky look out the window, remembering their childhood fondly. Ranevsky awoke with happiness every morning; now, she and Gayef lament that they must sell the orchard to pay their debts. For a brief moment, Ranevsky thinks that she can see their mother wandering in the orchard, but it is only a trick of the light. She laments that she cannot forget her past.
Despite teetering on the brink of ruin, Gayef and Ranevsky cannot disentangle themselves from their past—or their sentimental longing for a return to it. The wheels of time, though, only spin forward; if the two siblings do not get their act together, they will soon be left behind.
Trophimof, a shabby and bespectacled student, enters the room. He greets Ranevsky—he says once he heard that she’d returned, he could not wait until the morning. Ranevsky embraces him and begins crying. Barbara chides Trophimof for upsetting her mother. Ranevsky soon begins teasing Trophimof, though, asking him how he has grown so old. She asks if he’s still a student, and he answers that he is a “perpetual student.”
Trophimof—a student who served as tutor to Ranevsky’s late son, Grisha—represents, to Ranevsky, her more painful memories of the past. Like her memories of childhood, though, her memories of Trophimof upset her only briefly; her nostalgia is so strong that even the painful parts of her past hold their own allure.
Ranevsky prepares to head off to bed; Pishtchik asks to spend the night at the estate, and reminds Ranevsky that he needs to borrow money in the morning. They all head off to bed except for Gayef, Barbara, and Yasha. Barbara reminds Yasha that his mother has come up from the village, having heard of his return, and has been waiting for him in the servants’ quarters since yesterday. Yasha remarks that his mother is a nuisance, then goes off to greet her.
Yasha is a servant who sees the members of his own social class—even his own mother—as burdensome nuisances. His boorish cruelty towards Dunyasha earlier, and now his annoyance with his mother, reveal a cold, calculating, ambitious interior concerned only with his own comfort and advancement.
Barbara and her uncle discuss Ranevsky. Barbara laments that her mother is terrible with money. Gayef wishes there was a way for their family to miraculously come into enough to support Ranevsky’s “illness” of being a spendthrift—perhaps Anya could marry a rich man, or perhaps they could beg money from their aunt in Yaroslav, a rich Countess who unfortunately does not like Gayef or Ranevsky very much. Gayef admits that his sister married poorly and has led an unvirtuous life full of “sin.” Barbara realizes that Anya is standing in the doorway, and has overheard them.
Barbara and Gayef’s conversation reveals a strange lack of allegiance to Ranevsky—whereas Firs, Lopakhin, and other servants and neighbors rejoice at the woman’s presence, her own nuclear family has only bad things to say about her. They blame her for their own misfortunes, though neither of them has taken any concrete action to earn money, save their estate, or help Ranevsky stabilize her own emotions and actions.
Anya says she still can’t sleep. Gayef kisses Anya’s hands, crying, and apologizes for insulting her mother. Anya forgives Gayef; everyone loves him and respects him, she says, but he really needs to learn how to hold his tongue. Talking badly about others, she says, does nobody any good. Gayef apologizes again and promises to watch what he says from now on.
Gayef’s long-winded nature is frustrating to other members of his family—especially when the things he talks about are narrow-minded, self-centered, and even offensive.
Before he goes to bed, there is one last thing Gayef wants to discuss with the girls: he wants to try to secure a loan from the bank to pay the interest on the estate. He plans to go on Tuesday to talk with somebody. He urges Anya to try and get Ranevsky to ask Lopakhin for a loan in the meantime, and insists Anya herself go to Yaroslav to visit the countess. If they “operate from three points,” he is certain that between the three of them they’ll be able to come up with enough money. He swears on his “whole being” that the property will not be sold.
Gayef outlines a plan for how to save the estate—but it is devoid of any actual work or strategy, and simply involves begging for money from others. Gayef’s bullheaded confidence in the idea that his plan will work despite its inherent selfishness shows just how self-absorbed and out of touch with the times the man really is.
Anya expresses her great relief and embraces her uncle. Firs enters the room—he seems to think that Gayef is still a young boy, and urges him to get off to bed. Gayef kisses the girls goodnight, and goes off to sleep; Firs hobbles along after him. Anya tells Barbara that her mind is at last at rest. Barbara begins telling Anya about a nasty thing that happened while she was away, but soon realizes that Anya has fallen asleep sitting in a chair. She hurries Anya off towards the bedroom; in the orchard, a pipe begins playing. Anya comments on the nearby “bells.” Trophimof enters the room from one end as the girls exit through a door on the other; he watches Anya go sleepily towards her own quarters, and says quietly to himself, “My sunshine! My spring!”
The end of the first act continues to show Anya’s dreamy disinterest in almost everything around her—she can’t even stay awake to listen to one of her own sister’s stories. In this passage, Anya’s aloof self-absorption is set up to be in direct conflict with the young, liberal, and radical student Trophimof’s ardent desire for her.