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Symbolism in "The Cherry Orchard:" Chekhov's Russia

Updated on May 3, 2011

Anton Chekhov’s perennial drama, The Cherry Orchard, is a classic work of Russian literature. Chekhov himself grew up in a Russia that was experiencing the changes effected by the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. In one generation, Russia went from a country of landed aristocracy who were served by peasants to a country of free citizens. In The Cherry Orchard Chekhov does a masterful job of symbolizing Russia and portraying the differences before and after the emancipation.

What is Symbolism anyway?

First things first, as they say. What is symbolism anyway? In drama, a symbol can be anything used within the play itself to draw an association with something else. For instance, a dramatist could use a rose within the story to represent love between two characters. He could use the house where the characters live to represent the state of their emotional lives. There is a large degree of artistic license when it comes to symbolism in drama, but generally they are used to convey an underlying meaning or association.

Portrait of Anton Chekhov
Portrait of Anton Chekhov

Background

Chekhov uses the namesake of his drama, a cherry orchard, to symbolize his view of Russia. Russia prior to the 1861 emancipation consisted of a wealthy aristocratic class who held vast estates and exploited the serfs to gain cheap labor. The serfs essentially became slaves to the landowning class. In 1861, Czar Alexander II emancipated the serfs and allowed them to seek careers and lives out from under the oppressive landowners. This emancipation drastically weakened the aristocracy by taking from them the cheap labor that they had previously depended upon, and many wealthy landowners fell into financial trouble within 20 years of the emancipation. This was the Russia where Chekhov’s drama was set.

It must be stated that there is a lot of disagreement over what the cherry orchard is meant to represent. Literary critics disagree over its meaning and even the characters within the play have differing opinions. These different opinions serve to illustrate the opposing views of the very people who were alive at the close of the 19th century in Russia. Some were optimistic about the future and sought to better themselves while others were pessimistic, stuck in the past that was quickly leaving them behind. Chekhov beautifully portrays the fears and the hopes of common people, and even weaves these emotions into his symbolism.

The Orchard: A Symbol of the Past

The orchard of cherry trees is used as a symbol of the past, the past that is being flattened by the progress of the new. The character of Trofimov is the one who holds the strongest view of the orchard as being a reminder of the oppressive past. He says at one point that “from every cherry tree humans are peering out at you. To possess living souls – that has corrupted all of you.” In his view, the Russia of the past was quintessentially corrupt, filling the coffers of the wealthy by shedding the blood of the serfs. His solution to the corruption is to shun the past and embrace the changes that resulted from the emancipation. Trofimov proclaimed that “everything that is now unattainable will someday be comprehensible and within our grasp.” This was the true heart’s cry of the liberated serf, and the serfs saw the orchard as the symbol of their oppression; a thing better left in the past.

Standing in stark contrast to the view of Trofimov, the liberated serf, stands the view of Ranavskaya and Gayev, the landowners. They are reeling from the financial consequences of the emancipation and at the play’s outset they are faced with selling their estate in order to survive. The landowning aristocrats view the orchard as a reminder of easier times, as the source of their wealth and the financier of their easy lifestyle. Ranavskaya stubbornly refuses to part with the orchard, even though she knows she cannot afford it. The orchard is the symbol of her idealistic childhood and the good memories attached to it. Now that she is faced with an evolving social landscape, she clings to the solid memories of her past. To the wealthy few, the past was their utopia and the new Russia made up of freed serfs was an uncertainty at the least and was most commonly a nightmare.

Ultimately the cherry orchard is sold and the family leaves the house to be torn down. The orchard is chopped down and sold for the firewood. Chekhov does an amazing job of presenting the different emotions and motivating factors of the characters and, in the end, it seems as though he is making the point that society will progress and change will occur regardless of what the individual might desire or try to hold on to. All of his characters have their personal desires and idiosyncrasies, but they cannot change the fact that Russia is undergoing drastic change. All of the characters are being buffeted by the tide of change, but they can control their future by the attitude with which they view the future.

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