Indirect Action is a technique Chekhov was most famous for. It involves action important to the play's plot occurring off-stage, not on. Instead of seeing such action happen, the audience learns about it by watching characters react to it onstage. Lopakhin's speech at the end of Act III, recounting the sale of the cherry orchard, is the most important example of indirect action in the play: although the audience does not see the sale, the entire play revolves around this unseen action.
Mixing of Genres
Traditionally, humor and tragedy have been kept separate in dramatic works. Although Chekhov is certainly not the first playwright to mix comic and tragic elements onstage, he develops this tendency by creating a play that defies classification as either one of these two dramatic genres. Works such as The Cherry Orchard, which cannot be subjected to the traditional standards of classification, have helped build new modern literary traditions through their innovation in genre.
There are many symbols in this play. The keys at Barbara's waist symbolize her practicality and her power. Gay's imaginary billiards game symbolizes his desire to escape. The cherry orchard symbolizes the old social order, the aristocratic home, and its destruction symbolizes change. Firs himself is a figure of time; Anya is a figure of hope. The symbols in this play are too numerous to count, but many of them hinge on the idea of the changing social order or the specific circumstance of a given character.
Irony and Blindness
Irony appears in many instances throughout the play, and when it is not used for purely comic effect, it is tightly bound to the theme of blindness. On the one hand, the positions of the character's themselves are ironic. For example, the opposite circumstances of Lopakhin, Firs, and Dunyasha point out the irony in the now supposedly free-moving class system; characters talk about and praise a system of economic mobility. Still, they cannot see the contradiction in the situations of those around them that have no opportunity to improve their standing or are criticized for attempting to do so. In other cases, the play erects ironic moments, where the power in a given scene comes from a combination of two different images. For example, in Act II, Madame Ranevsky complains loudly about how she cannot control her money, while in the same breath she allows Yasha, the most untrustworthy character, to pick up her spilled purse. The fact that she is able to talk about her weakness and neglect the safety of her money in the same breath indicates that, despite her complaints, she is still blind to much of her problem.
Social Change and Progress
Several characters address the potential difference between social change and social progress. Firs and Trophimof are two of them. Both question the utility of the Liberation. As Firs notes, it made everyone happy, but they did not know what they were happy for. Firs himself is living proof of this discrepancy: society has changed, but his life, and the lives of countless others, have not progressed. Both characters insinuate that the Liberation is not enough to constitute progress; while it was a necessary change, it was not enough to bring mankind to the idealized future Trophimof imagines. The play leaves the impression that while change has come, there is more work to be done.
Independence, Liberation, and Freedom
This play deals with the theme of independence in many different ways. Fundamentally, it demands that we ask what it is to be free. What with the Liberation, The Cherry Orchard deals with independence in a very concrete way: shortly before the beginning of the play, much of Russia's population was not free. The play's characters demonstrate the different degrees of freedom that result from the Liberation. On opposing ends of this question are Lopakhin and Firs. One man has been able to take advantage of his liberation to make himself independent; the other, although he is technically free, has not changed his position at all and is subject to the whims of the family he serves, as he has always been. The difference in their situation demonstrates the observations of many Russians of the time: officially liberating a group of people is not they same as making them free if you do not also equip them with the tools they need to become independent, i.e, resources such as education and land.
Trophimof, the play's idealist, offers one definition of freedom for the audience to consider when he declines Lopakhin's offer of money. According to Trophimof, he is a free man because he is beholden to no one and nothing more than his own concept of morality. His observations seem accurate in light of other forms of non-freedom in the play. Madame Ranevsky, for example, is not free in a very different way from Firs. She has enough assets to be able to control her own destiny, but she is a slave to her passions, spending extravagantly and making poor decisions in romance, and therefore cannot follow a higher moral code as Trophimof does. What with the combination of economic circumstances and the bizarre weaknesses of the characters, the play therefore suggests that there are two sources which control freedom and the lack thereof: economics, which comes from without, and control over oneself, which comes from within.
The Cherry Orchard Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Cherry Orchard is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.