In The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov places the worst human impulses under a rather unforgiving microscope. The play sets up a tense dramatic situation—Madame Ranevsky and her family will lose their ancestral home if they do not parcel off their cherry orchard and rent it out to their neighbors—which then unfolds over the course of several months as Ranevsky’s poor spending habits, her neighbor Lopakhin’s envy and ambition, and her servants’ and daughters’ personal dramas obscure the pressing need to save the orchard. Ultimately, the characters are all selfish in their own ways, and their individual self-absorption leads to betrayal, heartbreak, and ill will as the drama approaches its devastating end. Throughout the play, Chekhov argues that selfishness and the betrayals it engenders lead to more than just interpersonal strife. Selfishness, Chekhov posits, can fell entire communities, leaving despair and destruction in its wake.
The selfishness and self-absorption of the aristocracy is rich material for Chekhov’s drama about social change. As he explores how myopic self-obsession is both a defining quality of upper-class life and a major instrument in its destruction, Chekhov examines the selfish tendencies of a few key characters. Madame Ranevsky—despite being a victim in many ways, and occasionally reading as a deeply sympathetic, pitiful character—is self-absorbed and ignorant of other people’s needs. She spends the money her family and their servants need to survive on luxurious lunches for herself and her friends, and gives extravagantly to the poor, though more out of naivete and an inability to say no (for fear of looking poor herself) than any actual desire to help them. Her financial irresponsibility is compulsive and unchecked, and this selfish quality has resulted in the financial ruin of her entire family. Moreover, when offered the opportunity to save her estate—and the livelihoods of her servants and those in her employ to boot— Ranevsky feels that it is beneath her to sacrifice her beloved cherry orchard and parcel it up into rented plots of land. This is a selfish move entirely—Ranevsky knows that her family is depending on her to save them, and yet prizes her own love of the orchard and her happy memories of walking through it as a child over making a move that could benefit someone other than herself.
Though the aristocracy is self-absorbed to the point of parody, the emerging middle-class, Chekhov demonstrates, is also given to selfishness and shameless ambition. Chekhov uses Lopakhin—a solitary man so consumed with and delighted by his own advancement that he ignores the needs of everyone else around him—to indict the selfish single-mindedness of the go-getting middle class, as well. Lopakhin initially appears to be on Ranevsky’s side—he is grateful to the kindness she showed to him in his youth, and appears to want to help her save the cherry orchard. As she rejects his idea time and time again, however, his frustration becomes evident—and when it is time to show his support for Ranevsky and her family, Lopakhin chooses his own prosperity over theirs. On the day of the auction, Ranevsky anxiously awaits the results of the bidding during a lavish house party. When her brother Gayef walks in the door, tearful and utterly defeated, she knows she has lost everything; when Lopakhin comes in the door moments later, elated and giggling, she realizes she has lost it all to him and his ambition. Lopakhin begins gleefully recounting how he outbid everyone else at the auction and won the cherry orchard for himself. He is proud of his achievement—the son of peasants, who, at one time in his life, could barely afford shoes in the winter, has become the owner of one of the most coveted properties in the region—but as he boasts of his good fortune, he does not even stop to think of how cruel he is being. Madame Ranevsky has lost everything—her home, her land, and her family’s legacy—yet the self-absorbed Lopakhin is blind to her suffering, or perhaps just doesn’t care, so proud is he of his own advancement. At the end of the play, as Ranevsky and her daughters pack up their belongings and struggle to get out of the house in time to make their train while still managing to say goodbye to their fond memories of the home, they hear the sounds of axes already starting to chop down the cherry trees in the orchard. Anya and Trophimof both indict Lopakhin for his carelessness and lack of tact—and yet Lopakhin, eager to set his plan in motion and begin making money off the villas he will build on the land the orchard occupies, can hardly wait until they are out of the house to begin pursuit of his own dream. Lopakhin’s ignorance and selfishness in this scene rivals—and even perhaps trumps—Ranevsky’s in the earlier acts, showing how the upper classes do not corner the market on shameless self-interest.
Chekhov, through his examination of his characters’ selfishness, demonstrates how egocentric thought ultimately ends up serving not even the self-interested individual perpetuating it. Selfishness destroys more than interpersonal relationships—it threatens legacies, traditions, and the very foundations of society, and it is not only the practice of the ignorant upper classes. The selfish desire to prove oneself, to overcome outdated institutions, and to acquire wealth and status at the expense of others is, unfortunately, an ugly practice of the middle class as well, and a pitfall to which no one, not even the ostensibly self-aware, is immune.
Selfishness 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: Do you know how old this cupboard is, Lyuba? A week ago I pulled out the bottom drawer and saw a date burnt on it. That cupboard was made exactly a hundred years ago. What do you think of that, eh? We might celebrate its jubilee. It’s only an inanimate thing, but for all that it’s a historic cupboard.
GAYEF (touching the cupboard): Yes, it’s a wonderful thing… Beloved and venerable cupboard; honor and glory to your existence, which for more than a hundred years has been directed to the noble ideals of justice and virtue. Your silent summons to profitable labor has never weakened in all these hundred years. (Crying.) You have upheld the courage of succeeding generations of our human kind; you have upheld faith in a better future and cherished in us ideals of goodness and social consciousness. (A pause.)
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.
LOPAKHIN: Excuse me, but in all my life I never met anybody so frivolous as you two, so crazy and unbusinesslike! I tell you in plain Russian your property is going to be sold, and you don’t seem to understand what I say.
MADAME RANEVSKY: Well, what are we to do? Tell us what you want us to do.
LOPAKHIN: Don’t I tell you every day? Every day I say the same thing over and over again. You must lease off the cherry orchard and the rest of the estate for villas […]
MADAME RANEVSKY: Villas and villa residents, oh, please… it’s so vulgar!
GAYEF: I quite agree with you.
LOPAKHIN: I shall either cry, or scream, or faint. I can’t stand it! You’ll be the death of me. (To GAYEF.) You’re an old woman!
LOPAKHIN: I should like to know what your opinion is of me?
TROPHIMOF: My opinion of you, Yermolai Alexeyitch, is this. You’re a rich man; you’ll soon be a millionaire. Just as a beast of prey which devours everything that comes in its way is necessary for the conversion of matter, so you are necessary too.
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.
BARBARA: Haven’t you gone yet, Simeon? You seem to pay no attention to what you’re told. […]
EPHIKHODOF: Allow me to inform you that it’s not your place to call me to account.
BARBARA: I’m not calling you to account; I’m merely talking to you. All you can do is walk about from one place to another, without ever doing a stroke of work; and why on earth we keep a clerk at all heaven only knows.
EPHIKHODOF (offended): Whether I work, or whether I walk, or whether I eat, or whether I play billiards is a question to be decided only by my elders and people who understand.
BARBARA (furious): How dare you talk to me like that! How dare you! I don’t understand things, don’t I? You clear out of here this minute! Do you hear me? This minute!
EPHIKHODOF (flinching): I must beg you to express yourself in genteeler language.
BARBARA (beside herself): You clear out this instant second! Out you go! Twenty-two misfortunes! Make yourself scarce! Get out of my sight!
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!
LOPAKHIN: In the spring I sowed three thousand acres of poppy and I have cleared four thousand pounds net profit. […] So you see, I cleared four thousand pounds; and I wanted to lend you a bit because I’ve got it to spare. What’s the good of being stuck up? I’m a peasant… As man to man…
TROPHIMOF: Your father was a peasant; mine was a chemist; it doesn’t prove anything. (LOPAKHIN takes out his pocket-book with paper money.) Shut up, shut up… If you offered me twenty thousand pounds I would not take it. I am a free man; nothing that you value so highly, all of you, rich and poor, has the smallest power over me; it’s like thistledown floating on the wind. I can do without you; I can go past you; I’m strong and proud. Mankind marches forward to the highest truth, to the highest happiness possible on earth, and I march in the foremost ranks.
LOPAKHIN: Will you get there?
TROPHIMOF: Yes. (A pause.) I will get there myself or I will show others the way.
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.)
(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.)