Charlotte, Yasha, Dunyasha, and Ephikhodof are out in the open fields behind the house, at the edge of the cherry orchard. It is the end of the day, near sunset. Ephikhodof plays the guitar while Charlotte mends the buckle of her gun’s strap. Charlotte tells the story of her life, though no one seems to be listening. She is the child of long-dead circus performers, and as a young girl she was a part of their act. She has no idea how old she is, or what country she comes from originally. She longs to talk to people about her life, but has “no friends or relations,” and no one to converse with.
In this scene, the servants are seen alone together for the first time. They, too, are shown talking about their pasts almost exclusively—but whereas Ranevsky, Gayef, and the others look back on their pasts with happy longing and sentimentality, Charlotte’s past—and, it is implied, the pasts of her fellow members of the working-class—is full of pain, loneliness, and misery.
Ephikhodof plays the guitar and sings, attempting to get Dunyasha’s attention—she is, however, infatuated with Yasha, and pays no one else any mind. Dunyasha admires how cultured Yasha has become during his travels abroad, and Ephikhodof attempts to brag about his own “cultivation.” He pulls a revolver out of his pocket and explains that he always carries it with him, in case he should decide to kill himself.
Dunyasha’s simpering “ladylike” affect, employed to get Yasha’s attention, is contrasted against Ephikhodof’s dramatic and violent grab at Dunyasha’s own attention. Ephikhodof seems to harbor a lot of the same loneliness as Charlotte, and even intense self-loathing.
Charlotte, having finished mending her own gun strap, slings her rifle over her shoulder and leaves, lamenting how “stupid” her companions are and her own loneliness. Ephikhodof asks if he can speak to Dunyasha in private. She asks him to go back up to the house and fetch her cloak; he goes off to do so, stating that he knows now what to do with his revolver. He leaves Dunyasha and Yasha alone; Yasha remarks what a “stupid fellow” Ephikhodof is, and, in spite of herself, Dunyasha worries Ephikhodof is going off to kill himself. She explains to Yasha that she has grown weak, delicate, and nervous; she is afraid of everything, and in this way has become quite like a proper lady.
The fact that there are two guns in this scene is a nod to the concept of “Chekhov’s gun,” a statement on writing in which Chekhov famously stated that if a gun is shown in an early scene, it must go off by the end of the play. The “gun” that will go off in this play is not a literal one, but a more metaphorical blast—one which will nonetheless level the characters in the drama just as effectively and tragically.
Dunyasha confesses that she has fallen in love with Yasha. Yasha, yawning, states that he believes any girl who falls in love is “immoral.” He hears footsteps approaching, and instructs Dunyasha to sneak back up to the house so that they won’t be seen together. She goes, and just a few moments later, Ranevsky, Gayef, and Lopakhin arrive in the field, having been in town for a luxurious lunch. Lopakhin is urging Ranevsky to make up her mind about his villa idea, but she refuses to answer him—she is busy digging in her own purse for money, lamenting how freely she squanders it despite the grave state of affairs up at the house; the servants are eating nothing but peas, and even Ranevsky and her daughters can afford nothing but soup. Agitated, she drops her purse, scattering coins everywhere. Yasha bends to collect them.
Yasha has no time for Dunyasha, and cannot even fake the slightest interest in her. He slights and abuses her at every turn, and yet she remains infatuated with him. Mirroring Dunyasha’s fruitless attempts at connection with Yasha, Ranevsky enters the scene—having just spent a ludicrous amount of money at lunch—and laments the way in which her horrible spending habits are almost out of her control.
As Yasha scrounges in the dirt for money, Ranevsky chides herself for having such poor spending habits—and chides her brother Gayef for talking on and on at lunch, wistfully longing for the olden days in front of the waiter. Gayef says he’s “incorrigible,” rather resignedly. Yasha laughs at Gayef, and Ranevsky sends her manservant away. He returns her purse to her and goes, laughing all the while.
Faced with his own failings and mistakes, Gayef blithely remarks that he is “incorrigible,” or unchangeable. This self-absorbed complacency is a direct indictment of the aristocracy’s entitled, smug nature.
Lopakhin reveals that a famed millionaire wants to buy the property. Gayef insists that they’ll be able to avoid the auction once the money from their aunt in Yaroslav comes through. Lopakhin scoffs that the two siblings are “crazy and unbusinesslike,” and asks why they refuse to accept the simple fact that their land will soon be sold. Ranevsky asks Lopakhin to tell them what to do. Frustrated, he explains that he’s already told them, several times—lease off the cherry orchard for villas at once. Ranevsky denounces his proposal as “vulgar.” Lopakhin, unable to contain himself, calls Gayef an “old woman” and turns to leave.
In this passage, Lopakhin grows deeply frustrated by Gayef and Ranevsky’s refusal to see reason and accept his plan. Their denial verges on the comical, and Chekhov certainly intended for their “crazy and unbusinesslike” demeanor to poke fun at the out-of-touch aristocracy. Moreover, Ranevsky and Gayef, in this moment, mirror their friend Pishtchik, who believes that a financial miracle is always just around the corner.
Ranevsky begs Lopakhin to stay and help her think of something else. She admits she has been “very, very sinful,” and starts outlining all the ways she has failed throughout her life. Her first husband was a drunk whose only talent was racking up debts. After his death, the lover she took treated her cruelly; her youngest son’s death prompted her to flee to Paris, but her no-good beau followed her there and drained her funds only to take up with another woman and leave her. Ranevsky pulls a telegram from her pocket and reveals that her lover is still writing to her, begging for her to forgive him and return to Paris to be with him. She tears the telegram up.
When Lopakhin grows seriously angry, Ranevsky catches onto the seriousness of the matter and changes gears, asking for his help instead of denying it. At the same time, she launches into a self-centered tale about her own pain and misfortune, as if to excuse her actions. When she rips her telegram up, it seems to signal—as it did in the first scene—that she wants to let go of the past, but as the audience will soon see, Ranevsky is still not ready to abandon her orchard.
Music plays in the distance—Gayef identifies its source as a local Jewish band. Ranevsky insists they invite the band to the house one night to play for them as they have a little party. Lopakhin says he went to the theater the night before and enjoyed himself during a funny play—Ranevsky implies that Lopakhin has no sense of humor. Lopakhin begrudgingly agrees with her; how could he have learned to have taste, he says, when his own father, a peasant and an idiot, taught him nothing all his life and only ever beat him when drunk. Lopakhin admits that he himself has had no education and is embarrassed by his poor penmanship.
When Ranevsky hears the band, she is delighted, and immediately begins looking forward to her next frivolity—hosting a party. When Lopakhin attempts to make small talk along these lines, though, Ranevsky makes fun of him. Though Lopakhin has been irritated with Ranevsky since she returned, her opinion of him still matters, and he concedes, when she calls him out on pandering to her, that he is ashamed of himself.
Ranevsky suggests Lopakhin marry Barbara; she would help him feel better about himself. Lopakhin agrees that he should, but then the two fall into silence. Gayef announces he’s been offered a job at the bank, but Ranevsky scoffs, implying that her brother could never hold a job.
Each character in the play—even Lopakhin—is facing down his or her own inertia. Lopakhin swears to marry Barbara, but can’t motivate himself to propose; Gayef wants to start working, but his sister believes he’ll fail.
Firs enters with an overcoat for Gayef, whom he continues to treat like a very young boy. He mumbles about how happy he was in the old days, when peasants and their masters had clear-cut relationships; even when serfs were liberated, Firs brags, he chose to stay with his master. Gayef tells Firs to “shut up,” and switches the topic to his own plans to secure a loan through an acquaintance. Both Ranevsky and Lopakhin predict this will never come to pass.
Trophimof, Anya, and Barbara approach the field. Ranevsky embraces her daughters while Lopakhin teases Trophimof for being so old and still a student. Trophimof is sensitive and reacts defensively, asking Lopakhin to leave him alone. Lopakhin offers Trophimof the chance to state his own opinion of him as a way of settling the score. Trophimof tells Lopakhin that he is, in his quest for more and more material wealth, like “a beast of prey which devours everything that comes in its way”—destructive, but “necessary for the conversion of matter.”
Ranevsky asks Trophimof to continue the lecture he was giving them all yesterday about “the proud man.” Trophimof offers his opinion that there is no place for pride in humanity—people must give up admiring themselves and instead devote themselves to hard work. Mankind, he says, must march forward in order to perfect its strength. The “intelligentsia” are lazy and useless, and though they rest on the laurels of their intelligence, they know next to nothing about art or philosophy. The new Russian middle class purports to be enlightened and down-to-earth simultaneously, but they snobbishly treat those below them like “animals” and live lives that do not reflect the experience of the common man. Lopakhin agrees with Trophimof—in his own business, he deals with a great many people, and has realized just how few “honest and decent” individuals there are.
Trophimof shares his humanist, revolutionary ideology with the group. They seem to hang on his every word—but whether they are taking him seriously or simply seeing him as entertainment is unclear. Trophimof does not advocate blindly for the expansion of the middle class; he knows that some of them are snobs and inauthentic intellectuals who long to affect the behavior of the aristocracy rather than work on building their country into a more inclusive, equal space. Lopakhin agrees with this ideology in theory—though whether he will emerge as a conscious proponent of it remains to be seen.
Everyone sits silently for a while, until a far-off noise—“the sound of a string breaking, dying away, melancholy—” reaches their ears. Lopakhin suspects it’s a mechanism in the mines a long way off; Gayef thinks it must have been a bird. Ranevsky shivers and says there was something uncanny about the noise. Firs remarks that he heard the exact same noise years ago, just before the liberation of the serfs.
Ranevsky urges everyone to head back to the house. She sees that Anya has tears in her eyes, and asks if she’s all right; Anya answers that she’s just fine. Trophimof sees someone coming down the road—it is a tramp, who asks the way to the railway station. Gayef gives him directions. Before heading off, the tramp asks for a small coin. Ranevsky rummages through her purse; unable to find a coin of a small value, she gives the beggar a whole gold coin. The tramp leaves, laughing.
Ranevsky continues to let money slip through her fingers as she awards a passing tramp a valuable gold coin. She is squandering her family’s little remaining money in order to maintain an appearance of wealth and prestige—or perhaps is having trouble reeling in her old habit of spending thoughtlessly.
Barbara cries out that she is going home—she is angry with her mother for giving a beggar a gold coin when their family can hardly afford to eat. Ranevsky admits that she has been “stupid,” and promises to hand over her purse to Barbara once they’re back to the house. She asks Lopakhin if he’ll lend her some money, and he agrees to. Ranevsky tells Barbara that Lopakhin will soon propose to her; through tears, Barbara begs her mother not to joke about such serious things.
Ranevsky acknowledges that she has made a mistake—but rather than do anything to fix it or prevent it in the future, she relies on other people (namely, the off chance that Barbara and Lopakhin will wed) to fix things for her, making mention of the delicate subject despite the awkwardness it creates.
Everyone but Trophimof and Anya heads back to the house; Anya says she’s grateful the bum came along since he frightened everyone off, allowing herself and Trophimof to be alone at last. Trophimof laments that Barbara never leaves the two of them alone—she is afraid they will fall in love with one another if left to their own devices. Trophimof declares, though, that he is “above love”—he sees it as petty and illusory, a bourgeois pursuit that prevents the forward march of change. Anya claps her hands, remarking upon how beautiful Trophimof’s speeches are.
Anya and Trophimof have a strange relationship. They both long for one another, but the first chance they have to be alone, Trophimof speaks only about how he is “above love.” Rather than being upset or put off, Anya seems to go right along with Trophimof’s ideology—perhaps implying that she’s not really absorbing what he’s saying, but instead congratulating herself for just listening to the man.
Anya asks Trophimof what he’s done to her—she no longer loves her once-precious cherry orchard. She once thought there was no better place on earth, but now doesn’t see it in the same light. Trophimof ventures that perhaps Anya, having grown up, can understand that the cherry orchard was tended for years and years by slaves—perhaps, he thinks, she can see human spirits and hear human voices peeking out from the trees. In order to enjoy the present, he speculates, the past must be redeemed, and for this to happen, there must be suffering. Anya agrees with Trophimof—the house they all live in is no longer theirs. She gives Trophimof her word that she will soon go away from it. He urges her to throw her house keys down a well and be free of her ties to the estate. Anya enthusiastically agrees that she should.
In this passage, Anya complicates her motives even further, clouding her already ambiguous political and moral leanings. She describes feeling no connection to the cherry orchard any longer—Trophimof suggests that, as she has grown older, Anya has come to understand the suffering that has gone into keeping the orchard alive, and is repulsed by it. Anya echoes Trophimof’s suggestion, and even goes so far as to vow that she will leave the house behind—but, as the play unfolds, Anya’s moral waffling will continue.
Trophimof says that though he has had a difficult life marked by strife and inconstancy, he feels the approach of happiness at last. Anya, seemingly ignoring him, notes that the moon is rising. Offstage, Barbara calls for Anya to come inside. Trophimof, as if not to lose Anya’s attention, tells her that the rising moon signifies their approaching happiness. Barbara continues calling for Anya—Anya, however, asks Trophimof to come with her down to the river, where it is “lovely.” They scamper away as Barbara’s cries continue.
Trophimof feels that happiness is approaching at last—though, again, whether he means his and Anya’s individual happiness or their happiness together remains unclear. Though they scamper off together at the end of the act, their behavior towards one another in the following acts will call into question exactly how they feel about one another, and what their relationship really is.