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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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The Cherry Orchard

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

In between doing a hundred other things - that is to say, whilst I am on the bus commuting to and from my library job - I start to reread Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, in preparation for a tutorial in a couple of days' time.

I have taught this now for five years, but what amazes me whenever I teach already-familiar material is that it retains its capacity to surprise. Always, it seems, I spot something that I have not noticed before, some formal trick or moment that ties in with the broader themes that I plan to discuss with my students. In this case, I notice a moment from the middle of Act 1.

After Gayev recounts to his sister Ranyevskaia the death of their former nurse, Lopakhin, the successful businessman, turns to Ranyevskaia, and suddenly says, "I feel I'd like to tell you something nice, something jolly." He then proceeds to elaborate his scheme about leasing the estate to holidaymakers. At first glance, there seems nothing odd about this, other than perhaps his urgency to explain it amidst the fluster of her recent arrival from Paris.

But then one thinks critically about the back story of the play. Lopakhin has been living near the estate whilst Ranyevskaia has been away in Paris. He has, we imagine, been in close contact with Gayev and Varya, who effectively manage it in her absence. Why, then, does he wait until this moment - until the early hours of the morning and within minutes of Ranyevskaia's return - to expound it? The only difference, the only thing which can account for it, is Ranyevskaia herself. What matters is not just the plan and its cold economics, but the passionate possibility it signifies for Lopakhin.

We can well imagine that this plan has been hatching long in his mind, and now he cannot possibly wait until a more opportune moment. He, once her "little peasant boy," has found a way to come up to her level, in her intellectual and social estimation of him. But whilst Lopakhin's future plan for the orchard is tied to his acute awareness of his peasant past, Ranyevskia's rejection of his ostensibly sensible idea as being "nonsense" is tied to her familial past, and hence two concepts of what the orchard means in class, economic, and historical terms are diametrically and poignantly opposed.

As the scene moves on into Feer's reminiscences about the history of the orchard when the estate was a success, Chekhov cleverly and implicitly reveals Ranyevskaia's true feelings about the orchard through her response to the seemingly "daft" serf. As Feers' nostalgically waffles on about the cherries and the jam, Gayev tells him to be quiet. But Ranyevskia asks, "and where is that recipe now?" She geniunely wants to know, wants to cling to the orchard as embodying the possibility of economic salvation in its own right, and therefore marking some sort of continuity with the past rather than the need for change.

Throughout the play, Lopakhin is self-conscious that he is a mere peasant, a "sow's ear" dressed up as a "silk purse." Gayev, an outright snob, does seem to see him as such, calling him a "boor." But Ranyevskaia seems more accomodating, although she does reject the idea of country villas as being "vulgar." Her rejection of Lopakhin's plan is not to do with her objections to him because he is beneath her class. Rather, she is genuinely concerned for the orchard, and all that it stands for that is literally and figuratively rooted in history.

And what is doubly poignant about this point is that her plans and feelings are so at odds with those of Lopakhin. For Lopakhin feels love for her as revealed through the dramatic timing of his announcement of his plans for the orchard; Ranyevskaia, too, who married a solicitor rather than a nobleman, might be potentially capable of reciprocating that love, rather than ideologically loathing Lopakhin because he is a mere peasant. Yet her plan - which she hopes will save the orchard - is not to marry him herself, but to marry him to Varia.

Right from the start of the play, then, emotional and social aspirations are in conflict, as are different views of what the cherry orchard signifies, and future opportunities for resolution are already defeated. Lopakhin may buy the orchard and turn it into villas, but to do so will be to alienate Ranyevskaia, the one character who might potentially accept him as a free man of the post-emancipation era, rather than viewing him as still essentially a serf, as her brother does.

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Posted by Alistair at 3:03 pm

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