The Cherry Orchard

The Cherry Orchard Study Guide

The nineteenth century offered two important developments to Russia which are manifested in the play. In the 1830's, the railroads arrived, an important step in Russia's move into a more international sphere. More importantly, in February of 1861, Russia's vast population of serfs was liberated for good, bringing a long-awaited social change. These two dimensions, social change and the growing importance of the international community, pervade the play and even drive the plot.

The railroad facilitates Madame Ranevsky in coming and going across borders, but the intrigue itself deals with the theme of social change: the aristocratic family loses power as the former serf gains, and a whole host of other characters fall in between. With the changes in the class system, debates about the nature of progress and freedom spring up across Russia, and these questions are reflected in The Cherry Orchard as well. The theme of social change is an international theme at the moment when the play was written: countries everywhere, including the United States, were experiencing similar growing pains and similar philosophical debates.

Chekhov's writing style is very pertinent to the population of Russia at this moment. While former aristocrats still patronized the arts, there was also a growing class of less educated, nouveau-rich attending the theater. Chekhov's plays are famous for their simple language, which many hold partly responsible for his popularity. The fact that his play discusses every social class in language that everyone can understand makes his play accessible to people of all backgrounds. It makes high-brow jokes while also being universally comedic.

Chekhov had a strong sense of social duty; his play implies that a sense of social duty towards others is necessary for the advancement of humanity. This idea is manifested in the fact that nearly all of his characters are sympathetic. Chekhov felt it was important that his characters be sympathetic, and indeed, The Cherry Orchard lacks a villain. While the play certainly criticizes our faults, it only does so to guide us in the right direction: the sympathetic quality of the characters, the accessibility of the language, combined with the factors of social change makes The Cherry Orchard critical and philosophical, yet fundamentally an optimistic work.