|In reading Chekhov, it may seem like, initially,
nothing happens. However, with closer attention (and often a second read), it becomes
clear that much is going on and that Chekhov has carefully plotted the exchanges between
characters. He often uses the pressures of public social situations to bring out differing
sides of his characters, such as arrivals, departures, and dances.
In Act I, we are introduced to the characters and their relationships with each
other. We learn that the estate of Ranevskaya (newly arrived from Paris) and her brother
Gayev is to be sold to pay their debts. We find that Varya, Ranevskayas adopted
daughter, is in charge of running the place. We meet the rich merchant Lopahin, child of
serfs, who has a plan to chop down the cherry orchard, erect summer vacation homes, and
use the rent to keep the estate afloat financially. We learn that Ranevskaya lost her
husband and son several years ago, and we eventually learn that Gayev has a plan to ask
the familys rich aunt for the money to pay the interest. We are introduced to the
various romances, which play a subsidiary role in the overall play: the maid
Dunyashas interest in the fashionable valet Yasha, the interest of Varya in Lopahin,
who seems too preoccupied with business ventures, and the interest of the student Trofimov
in Ranevskayas younger daughter Anya. We also meet the secondary characters, often
farcical in nature: Pishchik, a boorish if laughable landowner; Yepihodov, an exaggerated,
problem-ridden clerk working for the estate; Firs, the elderly manservant who remembers
the days before the serfs were freed; and Charlotta, a priggish governess.
Act II opens in a meadow in which we see several characters engage in fairly
broad farce that reveals their emotional states: we see Charlottas regret over her
lack of identity (complete with cucumber in hand); we see Yepihodovs pretensions to
culture; we learn more about Dunyashas interest in Yasha; and we see Lopahins
incredulity grow that Ranevskaya and Gayev have so little sense of whats to be done
about their estate. Ranevskaya reveals her poor choices in love: her husbands
debt-ridden decadent drunkenness and her later lovers abuse and abandonment of her
for another woman. We learn that Ranevskaya approves of a marriage between Varya and
Lopahin, but that he seems strangely reluctant. We encounter the idealism of Trofimov
about the future of Russian society in the face of class divisions and rampant poverty, as
well as Lopahins more pragmatic belief in the progress of industry. We learn, on the
other hand, that some like Firs regard the changes of the recent past as "the
calamity" (1554). And we learn that Anya shares in Trofimovs idealism.
Act III takes place between an evening ballroom dance and an adjacent
drawing-room where a billiards game is being held. (It opens with an effective farcical
exchange between Pishchik and Trofimov.) All the characters are enjoying themselves but
also in suspense about the pending sale of the orchard. Several issues surrounding
love-relationships unfold: Trofimov teases Varya about Lopahin; Ranevskaya learns that her
Paris lover will take her back and longs to go to him; Ranevskaya in turn teases Trofimov
about his own lack of sexual experience and idealism about romance; and we later learn
that Dunyasha scorns Yepihodov's affections. We watch as Yasha dismisses Firs for his
extreme age, and we learn of Yashas desire to return to Europe with Ranevskaya.
Varya fires Yepihodov for breaking a cuestick in the billiards game. The central event of
the third act and quite possibly the play, however, is Lopahins announcement that he
has bought the orchard himself at the auction.
In Act IV, we watch the departure of all the characters, the majority of whom
are surprisingly happy. Trofimov is to return to Moscow to study; Anya as well is to
continue in her studies and looks to the future with hope and expectation; Ranevskaya
seems relieved to be returning to Paris to live off her aunts money; Gayev has taken
the job offered him with the bank; Pishchik has come into money because of English
investments in his propertys white clay; Yepihodov has been reinstated by Lopahin;
even Charlotta seems happy. Of course, sadness surrounds the loss of the orchard,
especially for Ranevskaya and Gayev. Varya is also sad but has taken a job as a
housekeeper. (There is a possible hint that Lopahin has proposed marriage and that Varya
will eventually accept, cf. 1570.) Only Firs, who was away at the hospital, is finally
left behind, and the play ends with his return to find everyone else departed.
We can see, then, in Chekhov's play, despite its seemingly random,
atmospheric conversations, a classical, dramatic structure:
Act I: The Prologos: We are introduced to the major themes
and conflicts of the play: the coming sale of the orchard, the various romances, and the
class distinctions at the heart of the coming change in Russia.
Act II: The Agon: The conflict of characters is presented:
In this case, we see the internal struggles of several characters, the conflict between
Lopahin and Ranevskaya and Gayev (pragmatic and middle-class vs. aesthetic and
aristocratic), and the similar conflict between Lopahin and Trofimov (pragmatic vs.
Act III: The Pathos/Peripety: We watch the love
relationships and class disagreements unfolding, as well as the general anxiety over the
orchard -- all leading up to the climax when we learn that Lopahin has purchased the
Act IV: The Epiphany: The dramatic idea is completed as all
the characters (with the exception of Firs) come to accept the change that the selling of
the orchard has brought. Both a sense of loss and gain presides over the end.