The central theme of The Cherry Orchard is that of social change. Written in the early 1900s, the play depicts a Russia on the brink of revolution. As the aristocracy’s power wanes, former serfs experience freedom, and a burgeoning middle class takes root, the central characters of the play—representative of the upper, middle, and lower classes—find themselves struggling to negotiate their relationships, loyalties, and anxieties about the changing socioeconomic landscape of their country. Through The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov dramatizes the concerns of several social strata, showing how the emergence of a middle class in Russia disrupted and negatively impacted the lives not only of the aristocrats their “new money” threatened, but also those of the servants and workers unable to thrive in the new order of things. Chekhov ultimately argues that rapid social change—though necessary for societal growth—can actually end up leaving behind the very individuals it seeks to uplift.
From its very first pages, The Cherry Orchard establishes itself as a story about class. Chekhov uses the titular cherry orchard—and the changing circumstances that threaten it—as an expansive symbol of the disappearing social order and the emergence of a new one centered around an ambitious, power-hungry middle class. At the rise of the curtain, it is a frosty May morning; the peasant-turned-businessman Lopakhin awaits the return of Madame Ranevsky, the owner of a large estate that includes an expansive cherry orchard. Though Ranevsky, who has been living abroad for five years and squandering all her money, looks forward to returning to her old life, times have changed; she is deeply in debt, and Lopakhin informs her that the only way to possibly save her property before it goes up for auction in August is to parcel it up into individual plots and rent it out to the surge of “villa residents” (a euphemism for the growing middle class) throughout the countryside. Ranevsky insists there must be another way; her reluctance to chop down her cherry orchard symbolizes her anxieties about the social change rapidly taking place around her and her desire to hold onto her position in the world—a desire that will soon prove impossible.
As the play progresses, the summer goes by, and Ranevsky continually ignores Lopakhin’s repeated suggestion that she parcel up the land and rent it out. Her denial of her situation—the play’s central examination of the disorienting effect of social upheaval upon the wealthy—is complemented by Chekhov’s portrayal of how social innovation affects the servant class. Dunyasha, a young serving-girl working at the estate, struggles to act and dress more like a refined lady even as everyone around her calls her out for striving beyond her station; Yasha, Madame Ranevsky’s aloof and cruel manservant, acts as if he is too good for others of his class, treating visits from his mother, a peasant, as burdensome annoyances and treating Dunyasha, Anya’s governess Charlotte, and Ephikhodof badly. Firs, the oldest servant in the household, laments the day serfs were liberated from the land they were bound to and seems to be living (quite literally due to his advancing dementia) in the past, when servants showed total allegiance to their masters. As the play goes on, Chekhov uses Firs’s mental block when it comes to accepting social change to show how profoundly in denial members of all social classes are at the prospect of societal upheaval—and the idea that the traditions they have clung to for centuries are soon to be rendered obsolete.
In the play’s third act, Ranevsky throws a lavish party to distract herself from the fact that her brother Gayef and Lopakhin are off at the big auction, supposedly attempting to save the estate. The party symbolizes her attempt to live in denial a little longer, even at the literal eleventh hour—as a member of the aristocracy, things have always come easy to Ranevsky and people like her. The idea that she might actually lose her family’s home and orchard brings her anxiety, but something about it still seems implausible—until, of course, Lopakhin returns from the auction to reveal that he has purchased the orchard. Lopakhin is gleeful as he recounts how he outbid everyone else present—the son of poor, lowly peasants, Lopakhin is boastful as he realizes that he has just surpassed and usurped the very family whose charity his own once relied on to survive.
In the fourth and final act, Ranevsky and her family pack up while Lopakhin anxiously waits for them to vacate the house. As the family runs about frantically rounding up their things and attempting to say goodbye to their precious family home, the sound of axes chopping down trees wafts through the windows; Lopakhin has already hired men to fell the orchard and make way for his new “reign” over the property. The aristocracy has been toppled, and the middle class is moving in. Ranevsky and Gayef’s grief is palpable, and yet Anya, Trophimof, and Yasha seem anxious to get out of the house and on with their “new lives.” After everyone departs, the elderly servant Firs enters the room, and finds that he has been locked inside the house. Ill and alone, he laments that his life has come to nothing before lying down on the sofa and, presumably, dying as the sounds of the axes start up again. Firs, too, has been left behind (and left to die) by the changes sweeping Russia.
Chekhov’s play tells the story of what happens when both rich and poor are left behind by the rise to prominence of a class whose concerns do not take into mind either group’s needs. Chekhov could easily have made The Cherry Orchard about the pitiful, obsolete concerns of the wealthy, landowning class in the face of the triumph of the common people; instead, he takes a more nuanced view and incorporates the very real way in which even positive social change renders certain ways of life irrelevant and leaves even privileged families and individuals out in the cold, unprepared for the new world stretching out before them.
Social Change ThemeTracker
Social Change 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 (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!
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!
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.
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.
(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!
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.)
(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.)