Essay: A Tragic Comedy - The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov
Saving Face and Moving On
There is some debate about The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov on whether it is a comedy or a tragedy. Though it follows the story of the bankruptcy and sale of the estate of an impoverished aristocrat, the author still claims it to be a comedy. A closer look would reveal it to be a play about pride and the ability to come to terms with and/or change one’s past.
Three of the main characters have certain strengths and weaknesses which contribute to the action of the play. The root of their values can be traced back to pride. Whether they move on with their lives or lie down and die depends on how they deal with their pasts. In short, the play is about a person's ability to save face and move forward. Whether it is a tragedy or comedy would be determined on a character's ability to successfully move forward with his or her life.
The events in the play happen because of the values that Mrs. Ranevsky deems important. She likes remembering how things used to be, at a time before she was in debt from following the man she thought she loved to Paris and before her son drowned in the river. She wants to hold on to the part of her past when everything was wonderful. Living in her past is her escapism from the pain in her present. Nostalgia is a value that is a factor of her escapism. Anything that has a sentimental meaning to her, she holds dear to her heart. This is the whole reason why she refuses to sell the cherry orchard. She could probably sell her fine furniture to pay off some of her debt, but she is too attached to it, at one point she refers to a few pieces as “darling” and even kisses a table. Selling the cherry orchard would have solved her monetary woes, but she considers her things as priceless. Mrs. Ranevsky’s weakness is her unwillingness to get over her past. She can not forgo any luxury that reminds her of her golden days. Anya comments to Varya,
She had already sold her villa at Mentone, she had nothing left…And Mamma wouldn’t understand! When we had dinner...she always ordered the most expensive dishes, and tipped the waiters a whole ruble.
It is not that she did not understand she just did not want to face the facts. Sometimes it seems easier to keep living like everything is the same in order to keep up the illusion that nothing has changed. This is an act of a prideful person. Mr. Ranevsky does not want to admit defeat. That is why she orders food and tips waiters like she usually does even though she does not have any money to spare.
One of the best examples of her trying to hold on to the past takes place during the auction where her land is to be sold. Instead of going to the auction and facing the reality of her situation, she sends her brother to bid with money from her aunt while Mrs. Ranevsky throws a party at her house with a band she has no means of paying. This is her last stand to hold on to the other reality she has created for herself. She knows it is her past that is holding her back. At one point in the play she says, “…If I could only forget the past.” She does not need to forget her past, but overcome it. Trofimov, the “perpetual student” adds some insight,
…We should first redeem our past, finish with it, and we can expiate it only by suffering, only by extraordinary, unceasing labor.
Even though it would be hard for her to get over her son dying and losing her money, it would have been a better, healthier choice than to spend her time creating a fantasy world based on her past when everything was great.
Firs grows up on the Ranevsky’s land as a servant and even though the serfs are freed he continues to serve the family. He does not do this out of the kindness of his heart, but because he is afraid of change. The way things were is how they always will be to him. This mentality is why his major value in life is order. He can not live without someone to serve. This fact can be observed in the following dialog between Mrs. Ranevsky and Firs.
Mrs. Ranevsky: Firs, if the estate is sold, where will you go?
Firs: I’ll go where you tell me.
Mrs. Ranevsky: Why do you look like that? Are you ill? You ought to go to bed.
Firs: Yes! Me go to bed, and who’s to hand things round? Who’s to see to things? I’m the only one in the whole house.
This scene shows that he is committed to a life of servitude and that he, in fact, defines his existence based on this sense of order. Firs prides himself in not changing his ways after the freedom of the serfs, what he refers to as “the calamity”. When the serfs were freed, Firs “[remembers] they were all very happy, but why they were happy, they didn’t know themselves.” This sheds some light on his weakness. Firs refuses to adapt to change. Stubbornness is a trait of a prideful person. By not changing, Firs has become obsolete as a person. He serves the same functions as a piece of furniture. Gayev toasts a piece of furniture saying,
Dear, honored bookcase, hail to you who for more than a century have served the glorious ideals of goodness and justice! Your silent summons to fruitful toil has never weakened in all those hundred years, sustaining, through successive generations of our family, courage and faith in a better future, and fostering in us ideals of goodness and social consciousness.
The word “bookcase” can be switched with “Firs” and it would still make sense within the context of the play. Firs literally exists to supply books, coats, or any other assortment of things when they are needed and store them when the user is through with them. He has also chosen to serve for more than one generation of the Ranevsky family. His regression to furniture can be seen more plainly when he is locked in the house for the winter, as furniture would be, at the end of the play. Whether he is let out of the house or not depends on if Gayev has grabbed the correct coat. Firs has shifted from being a bookcase to a coat rack. Trofimov declares,
To avoid the petty and illusory, everything that prevents us from being free and happy—that is the goal and meaning of our life. Forward! Do not fall behind, friends.
Firs is also stuck in the past, but for different reasons than Mrs. Ranevsky. His issue is not “[redeeming his] past,” but moving “forward” from his past. Once he is able to do this, Firs will be capable of truly living his life.
As a philistine, Lopahin’s sole value is money. He is very ambitious. He grew up the son of a peasant, but he aspired to be more than that. He considers himself “a pig in a pastry shop” because he used to be poor, but now he has enough money to buy whatever he wants. His value of money goes beyond just wanting to be wealthy; he is embarrassed of his past. He tells Mrs. Ranevsky,
My pop was a peasant, an idiot; he understood nothing, never taught me anything, all he did was beat me when he was drunk, and always with a stick. Fundamentally, I’m just the same kind of blockhead and idiot. I was never taught anything—I have a terrible handwriting. I write so that I feel ashamed before people, like a pig.
He did not want to grow up to be like his father to live and serve on other people’s land. The urge to become something better than his father is what leads to his weakness. This is an act of a prideful person. He is so focused on making money that it is all that he cares about. When asked about Lopahin and Varya’s engagement, Varya replies, “Oh, I don’t think anything will ever come of it. He’s too busy, he has no time for me…pays no attention to me." He is so consumed with the conquest of his past that he ignores the person that he admits he loves. Even when the Ranevskys get home from their trip and are swapping reminiscent stories about the house, Lopahin repeatedly interrupts them to talk about business. He has no time to reminisce because time is money. Lopahin is proud at the end of the play because he buys the Ranevsky’s house, something that his father was never able to do, and he makes sure everyone knows it,
If my father and my grandfather could rise from their graves and see all that has happened—how their Yermolay, who used to be flogged, their half-literate Yermolay, who used to run about barefoot in winter, how that very Yermolay has bought the most magnificent estate in the world. I bought the estate where my father and grandfather were slaves, where they weren’t even allowed to enter the kitchen.
Since he has “[redeemed his] past” and has chosen from a young age to move “forward” it is easy to see why Anton Chekhov views his play as a comedy rather than a tragedy. Lopahin takes control of his Fate and lives his life the best that he can.
A Tragic Comedy
Through the first read, one may consider The Cherry Orchard to be a tragedy, but when the characters and their values are thoroughly considered it seems to be more of a comedy. Chekhov lays down his ideals using Trofimov, but puts them into action using Lopahin. Based on Chekhov's opinion of his play being a comedy, it is obvious he views the story's focus to be on Lopahin. Out of the three characters discussed (Mrs. Ranevsky, Firs, and Lopahin) Lopahin is the only one who has the courage to overcome his past and the ambition to conquer his future. Lopahin is the only one that says to the world, “That was my past, but this is who I want to be,” and does something about it. Being able to move on in the face of tragedy or change is a heroic quality. Since the hero of the play had his happy ending, The Cherry Orchard is a comedy.
Chekhov, Anton. (1904). The Cherry Orchard.