One of the most profound themes in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is loss. From Madame Ranevsky, her brother Gayef, and her daughters Barbara and Anya’s loss of their ancestral home, to Ranevsky’s lingering grief over the death of her youngest son Grisha, to Ephikhodof’s resigned acceptance of his daily misfortunes, every character within the play—even the minor ones—is struggling with feelings of loss, grief, and pain. In suffusing each character’s story with some measure of loss, Chekhov points out the suffering and pain that affect humanity indiscriminately, paying no mind to class, privilege, or social standing, and argues that no one is immune to, or can be protected from, feelings of loss and grief. At the same time, class allows the more privileged to indulge their grief, while the less privileged must suffer silently in order to avoid falling behind in their duties to those they are bound to serve out of tradition or necessity.
In this play, no one is safe from the alienating and demoralizing effects of loss. The undiscerning nature of pain is most acutely demonstrated through the suffering of the play’s main protagonist, Madame Ranevsky. Five years ago, shortly after the death of her drunk spendthrift of a husband, Madame Ranevsky’s youngest son Grisha died by drowning. In the wake of his death, Ranevsky took up with a lover who treated her poorly, and fled with the man to Paris—no doubt to escape her grief. At the start of the play, though not all of the information about what transpired in Paris is known, it is clear that Ranevsky’s attempt to dodge the pain of her losses has backfired. Her youngest daughter Anya traveled to Paris to fetch her, and found her living in questionable circumstances, completely drained of funds. Ranevsky, in her suffering, fled the “duties” of her life in the country—running the estate, mothering Barbara and Anya and securing educations and marriages for them—in order to indulge her own grief and try to escape the pain of her loss. Ranevsky, due to her elevated social standing, was in a position in which she could both afford literally and figuratively to do so. She was able to behave selfishly, foolishly, and even dangerously, because her privilege protected her in many ways—even if it could not save her from being a victim of loss and pain.
The play’s servant characters are also often seen struggling with intense grief and feelings of loss—though the ways they are “allowed” to express and process their feelings are very different from that of the upper-class characters. Ephikhodof, the family’s clerk, is an odd man who seems unlearned in social graces and perpetually in a depressive fog. At first, Ephikhodof seems to be nothing more than an odd bit of comic relief—in the play’s second act, however, he reveals that he always carries a revolver with him in case he feels the need to kill himself. Ephikhodof—whose nickname is “Twenty-two misfortunes,” due to his somber nature and propensity for getting into physical or interpersonal blunders—is dogged by a very deep sense of grief. Though the audience never learns its source, Ephikhodof’s penetrating sadness goes from being a joke to a very serious matter in the span of just a couple acts. Charlotte, Anya’s governess, is a funny woman skilled in tricks and illusions who, in the second act, reveals that she is the orphaned daughter of circus performers who led her around the continent from show to show, never revealing where she was born or establishing for their child a place where she truly belonged. Despite her quirky veneer and penchant for showmanship, Charlotte’s waters run deep; her statelessness and loneliness wear on her, and she frequently laments how alone she feels in the world. Charlotte’s words, more often than not, fall on deaf ears, and so her sense of loneliness and grief is only compounded. Chekhov uses the suffering of his minor characters to show how everyone in the world suffers in ways both seen and unseen, private and public. Loss and grief penetrate all echelons of the social stratosphere, and yet members of the lower classes such as Dunyasha, Charlotte, and Ephikhodof are forced to push their pain down and suffer in silence—or at least in obscurity—while more well-off individuals such as Ranevsky can afford to indulge their pain by, say, taking five-year jaunts to Paris so as to avoid living in the house where their child drowned.
As Chekhov explores the public and private sufferings of his characters, he makes it a point to show his audience the ways in which class influences peoples’ ability to process and handle their pain. While the upper classes are allowed more leeway, the servant class, which keeps the wheels of their masters’ lives oiled, must put the needs of others before their own, thus sublimating their own feelings and often—unfortunately—leading to improper, underdeveloped, or even dangerous ways of expressing the grief that they, too, feel deeply.
Loss, Grief, and Class ThemeTracker
Loss, Grief, and Class Quotes in The Cherry Orchard
MADAME RANEVSKY: Cut down the cherry orchard! Excuse me, but you don’t know what you’re talking about. If there is one thing that’s interesting, remarkable in fact, in the whole province, it’s our cherry orchard.
LOPAKHIN: There’s nothing remarkable about the orchard except that it’s a very big one. It only bears once every two years, and then you don’t know what to do with the fruit. Nobody wants to buy it.
GAYEF: Our cherry orchard is mentioned in Andreyevsky’s Encyclopaedia.
FIRS: In the old days, forty or fifty years ago, they used to dry the cherries and soak ‘em and pickle ‘em, and make jam of ‘em, and the dried cherries…
GAYEF: Shut up, Firs.
FIRS: The dried cherries used to be sent in wagons to Moscow and Kharkof. A heap of money! The dried cherries were soft and juicy and sweet and sweet-smelling them. They knew some way in those days.
MADAME RANEVSKY: And why don’t they do it now?
FIRS: They’ve forgotten. Nobody remembers how to do it.
GAYEF (opening the other window): The orchard is all white. You’ve not forgotten in, Lyuba? This long avenue going straight on, straight on, like a ribbon between the trees? It shines like silver on moonlight nights. Do you remember? You’ve not forgotten?
MADAME RANEVSKY (looking out into the garden): Oh, my childhood, my pure and happy childhood! I used to sleep in this nursery. I used to look out from here into the garden. Happiness awoke with me every morning! And the orchard was just the same then as it is now; nothing is altered. (Laughing with joy.) It is all white, all white! Oh, my cherry orchard! After the dark and stormy autumn and the frosts of winter you are young again and full of happiness; the angels of heaven have not abandoned you. Oh! If only I could free my neck and shoulders from the stone that weighs them down! If only I could forget my past!
GAYEF: I’ll go [to the bank] on Tuesday and talk [the loan] over again. (To BARBARA) Don’t howl! (To ANYA) Your mamma shall have a talk with Lopakhin. Of course he won’t refuse her. And as soon as you are rested you must go to see your grandmother, the Countess, at Yaroslav. We’ll operate from three points, and the trick is done. We’ll pay the interest, I’m certain of it. (Taking sugar candy.) I swear on my honor, or whatever you will, the property shall not be sold. (Excitedly.) I swear by my hope of eternal happiness! There’s my hand on it. Call me a base, dishonorable man if I let it go to auction. I swear by my whole being.
FIRS: I’ve been alive a long time. When they found me a wife, your father wasn’t even born yet. And when the Liberation came I was already chief valet. But I wouldn’t have any Liberation then; I stayed with my master. (A pause.) I remember how happy everybody was, but why they were happy they didn’t know themselves.
LOPAKHIN: It was fine before then. Anyway they used to flog ‘em.
FIRS (Mishearing him): I should think so! The peasants minded the masters, and the masters minded the peasants, but now it’s all higgledy-piggledy; you can’t make head or tail of it.
(They all sit pensively. Silence reigns, broken only by the mumbling of old FIRS. Suddenly a distant sound is heard as if from the sky, the sound of a string breaking, dying away, melancholy.)
MADAME RANEVSKY: What’s that?
LOPAKHIN: I don’t know. It’s a lifting-tub given way somewhere away in the mines. It must be a long way off.
GAYEF: Perhaps it’s some sort of bird… a heron, or something.
TROPHIMOF: Or an owl…
MADAME RANEVSKY (shuddering): There’s something uncanny about it!
FIRS: The same thing happened before the great misfortune: the own screeched and the samovar kept humming.
GAYEF: What great misfortune?
FIRS: The Liberation.
ANYA: What have you done to me, Peter? Why is it that I no longer love the cherry orchard as I did? I used to love it so tenderly; I thought there was no better place on earth than our garden.
TROPHIMOF: […] Think, Anya, your grandfather, your great-grandfather and all your ancestors were serf-owners, owners of living souls. Do not human spirits look out at you from every tree in the orchard, from every leaf and every stem? Do you not hear human voices? …Oh! It is terrible. Your orchard frightens me. When I walk through it in the evening or at night, the rugged bark on the trees glows with a dim light, and the cherry trees seem to see all that happened a hundred and two hundred years ago in painful and oppressive dreams. […]
ANYA: The house we live in has long since ceased to be our house; and I shall go away, I give you my word.
TROPHIMOF: If you have the household keys, throw them in the well and go away. Be free, be free as the wind.
ANYA: How beautifully you put it!
PISHTCHIK: The worst of it is, I’ve got no money. A hungry dog believes in nothing but meat. (Snoring and waking up again at once.) I’m just the same… it’s nothing but money, money with me.
(A sound of billiards being played in the next room. BARBARA appears in the drawing-room beyond the arch.)
TROPHIMOF (teasing her): Madame Lopakhin! Madame Lopakhin!
BARBARA (angrily): Mouldy gentleman!
TROPHIMOF: Yes, I’m a mouldy gentleman, and I’m proud of it.
BARBARA (bitterly): We’ve hired the band, but where’s the money to pay for it?
TROPHIMOF (to PISHTCHIK): If the energy which you have spent in the course of your whole life in looking for money to pay the interest on your loans had been diverted to some other purpose, you would have had enough of it, I dare say, to turn the world upside down.
MADAME RANEVSKY: Oh, if only I knew whether the property’s sold or not! It seems such an impossible disaster, that I don’t know what to think… I’m bewildered… I shall burst out screaming, I shall do something idiotic. Save me, Peter; say something to me, say something…
TROPHIMOF: Whether the property is sold to-day or whether it’s not sold, surely it’s all one? […] You mustn’t deceive yourself any longer; for once you must look the truth straight in the face.
MADAME RANEVSKY: […] You settle every important question so boldly; but tell me, Peter, isn’t that because you’re young, because you have never solved any question of your own as yet by suffering? […] show me just a finger’s breadth of consideration, take pity on me. Don’t you see? I was born here, my father and mother lived here, and my grandfather; I love this house; without the cherry orchard my life has no meaning for me, and if it must be sold, then for heaven’s sake tell me too! (Embracing TROPHIMOF and kissing him on the forehead.) My little boy was drowned here. (Crying.) Be gentle with me, dear, kind Peter.
MADAME RANEVSKY: Who bought it?
LOPAKHIN: […] I bid nine thousand more than the mortgage, and got it; and now the cherry orchard is mine! Mine! (Laughing.) Heaven’s alive! Just think of it! The cherry orchard is mine! Tell me that I’m drunk; tell me that I’m off my head; tell me that it’s all a dream! […] If only my father and my grandfather could rise from their graves and see the whole affair, how their Yermolai, their flogged and ignorant Yermolai, who used to run around barefooted in the winter, how this same Yermolai had bought a property that hasn’t its equal for beauty anywhere in the whole world! I have bought the property where my father and grandfather were slaves, where they weren’t even allowed into the kitchen. I’m asleep, it’s only a vision, it isn’t real… ‘Tis the fruit of imagination, wrapped in the mists of ignorance. […] Come everyone and see Yermolai Lopakhin lay his axe to the cherry orchard, come and see the trees fall down! We’ll fill the place with villas; our grandsons and great-grandsons shall see a new life here […] Here comes the new squire, the owner of the cherry orchard!
ANYA: Mamma! Are you crying, mamma? My dear, good, sweet mamma! Darling, I love you! I bless you! The cherry orchard is sold; it’s gone; it’s quite true, it’s quite true. But don’t cry, mamma, you’ve still got life before you, you’ve still got your pure and lovely soul. Come with me, darling; come away from here. We’ll plant a new garden, still lovelier than this. You will see it and understand, and happiness, deep, tranquil happiness will sink down on your soul, like the sun at eventide, and you’ll smile, mamma. Come, darling, come with me!
ANYA (in the doorway): Mamma says, will you stop cutting down the orchard till she has gone.
TROPHIMOF: Really, haven’t you got tact enough for that?
(Exit TROPHIMOF by the hall.)
LOPAKHIN: Of course, I’ll stop them at once. What fools they are!
(Exit after TROPHIMOF.)
(MADAME RANEVSKY and GAYEF remain alone [in the nursery.] They seem to have been waiting for this, throw their arms round each other’s necks and sob restrainedly and gently, afraid of being overheard.)
GAYEF (in despair): My sister! My sister!
MADAME RANEVSKY: Oh, my dear, sweet lovely orchard! My life, my youth, my happiness, farewell! Farewell!
ANYA (calling gaily, without) Mamma!
TROPHIMOF (gay and excited): Aoo!
MADAME RANEVSKY: One last look at the walls and the windows… Our dear mother sued to walk up and down this room.
GAYEF: My sister! My sister!
ANYA (without): Aoo!
MADAME RANEVSKY: We’re coming. (Exeunt.)
(The stage is empty. One hears all the doors being locked, and the carriages driving away. All is quiet. Amid the silence the thud of axes on the trees echoes sad and lonely. The sound of footsteps. FIRS appears in the doorway. He is dressed, as always, in his long coat and white waistcoat; he wears slippers. He is ill.)
FIRS (going to the door and trying the handle): Locked. They’ve gone. (Sitting on the sofa.) They’ve forgotten me. Never mind! I’ll sit here. […] Life has gone by as if I’d never lived. (Lying down.) I’ll lie down. There’s no strength left in you; there’s nothing, nothing. Ah, you… job-lot!
(He lies motionless. A distant sound is heard, as if from the sky, the sound of a string breaking, dying away, melancholy. Silence ensues, broken only by the stroke of the axe on the trees far away in the cherry orchard.)