Idealism versus Realism in Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard

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Idealism versus Realism in Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard

Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (1903) depicts the changing scenario of Russian society from the idealistic phase to the realistic phase. It revolves around the changing social norms and values of the Russian society from feudal to capitalistic viewpoints before the Russian Revolution of 1917. Chekhov intends to blur the traditional aristocratic values and to show the rise of capitalistic values in the Russian society. The fall of the cherry orchard at the end of the play is symbolic to this claim. In the play, Lyubov Andreyevna and her brother Gayev represent the idealistic traditional values for denial of changing scenario of the worldview. Whereas, characters like Lopakhin and Trifimov represent the realistic worldview for their acceptance of it. The rigidity in the traditional aristocratic viewpoint in Lyubov Andreyevna and Gayev results from the fall of their estate at the end of a play. On the other hands, Lopakhin as a man of action and as a representative of changing worldview becomes the master of the estate. This research illustrates the changing worldviews towards realistic from idealistic with the inclusion of capitalism in Russian society.

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Society and its action are experimental in nature and they change with time and inclusion of new kind of thinking. The person who remains rigid to his/her belief mostly have a chance to fall and called to be idealistic whereas the one who transforms him/her along with such changes becomes successful and known to other and called to be a realist.  Idealism and realism are two opposite poles of thinking which can never move on the same path. Idealism refers to the high level of thinking in reference to class, culture, and religion but realism is the thinking which accepts things as they are. Berki talks on the dichotomy between realism and idealism as “The realist is the knower and informed actor, the brave person who defies necessity and eliminates obstacles. The idealist is not the dreamer or the fanatic, but the dupe who acquiesces meekly in being led, being hemmed in by circumstances outside” (qtd. in Griffiths 26). Late nineteenth-century society led towards the fall of the idealistic worldviews with the inclusion of views of the modern thinkers like Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Fredrick Nietzsche, and others. The literary works around this time also defied the traditional idealistic worldviews because life has to be practical to be sustained.

Anton Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard explores the failure of idealistic class superiority in the changing scenarios with the inclusion of capitalism in Russian society. Jacqueline E. M. Latham indicates the failure of the idealistic class superiority of Lyubov Andreyevna  and her family as, “Chekhov’s criticism of this aristocratic family, then, goes deeper: they have not only lived in an imaginary world, avoiding responsibility like children, but they have lost the means by which a life like this can be made possible; they have lost the secret and they do not even realize what they have done” (26). This shows the exact reason for the fall of the estate of Lyubov Andreyevna. Therefore, this play can be considered as a representative work of art which shows the fall idealistic worldview and the rise realistic one.

The title The Cherry Orchard itself holds crux of the play because the main plot roams around it and also about the fall of this beautiful garden. In this play, the cherry orchard stands for the idealistic world because it has become the main point of concern through the play. The changed worldviews of the capitalistic society seek to cut down the traditional values whether they do keep importance or not. Stephen L. Baehr brings in different critics with opposite viewpoints on this very garden about “the role of progress in the play” (119). Baehr brings in discussion the viewpoints of Donald Rayfield and Harvey Pitcher. Baehr notes that Rayfield sees the cherry orchard as “nudg[ing] the audience into viewing the bankrupt orchard as a model of a country ruined by progress” (qtd in Baehr 119), whereas Pitcher argues that “Chekhov has arranged his play [so that] there could be no reason for us at feel grief at the particular course being taken by social evolution” (qtd in Baehr 119). These discussions make people think about how to take the cherry orchard symbolically. The cherry orchard, as a representative value of traditional class superiority, had been cut down as Lopakhin owns it to show the rise of newness in the society. As a central attraction of the play, the fall of cherry orchard indicates the rise of new kind of worldview in Russian society with the inclusion of capitalism.

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The Cherry Orchard advocates the changing worldviews in the Russian society. It includes characters from two different ideologies. One group holds the feudalistic hangover of contemporary Russia whereas another has the values of modernity. Lyubov Andreyevna and her brother Gayev as the representative aristocratic Russian society are unable to change their viewpoints along with the changing scenario of the country. Idealistic thinking romanticizes the things around the human life to keep hope even with false beliefs. J. Andrew Kirk defines idealism as:

The view that objects in the world only exist in relation to the knowing mind. This means that objects cannot be known in themselves. They do not exist independently of the way human minds perceive them. . . . As thought takes place through the medium of language, so our contact with the world is mediated linguistically. (234)

This definition instructs the idealism as the linguistic world or the world of mind which may or may not be the real one. Lyubov Andreyevna and her brother seem to be content with their world of ideas and philosophies. Their stubborn argument on the cherry orchard seems to be irrelevant to the changing scenario. In Act I, when Lopakhin suggests cutting the cherry trees down and leasing the land for summer cottages to save the estate to be sold at auction, they argue like this:

LYUBOV ANDREYEVNA: Cut it down? Forgive me, my dear, but you don’t know what you are talking about. If there is one thing in the whole province that is interesting, not to say remarkable, it is our cherry orchard.

LOPAKHIN: The only remarkable thing about this orchard is that it is very big. There is a crop of cherries every other year, and then you can’t get rid of them, nobody buys them.

GAYEV: The orchard is even mentioned in the Encyclopedia. (Chekhov 712)

Time and again, Lopakin tries to suggest both of them to lease the cherry orchard for summer cottages to save their property but they do not listen to his words. As Kirk argues, they keep hope in their cherry orchard which is almost useless in the then situation and their stubborn belief leads to the loss of the estate at the end of the play. So, this play suggests that the false ideologies have to be revised time and again the changing scenarios because nothing keeps the same importance with time changes.

Lyubov Andreyevna and Gayeb are not only stubborn to their ideologies but also childish in nature. Jacqueline E. M. Latham argues that “The brother and sister have not changed, yet the world has. They are children in an adult world, and for the most part, they are unaware of reality; even in their rare moments of self-knowledge, they lack the power of coming to grips with reality” (23). Both sister and brother live in their childhood memories with the cherry orchard but unable to handle their present. For the brother and sister, the orchard is a symbol of their youth, the youth they have never left. Svetlana Evdokimova argues, “A child cannot be childish or child-like, because he is a child. Childish perceptions, by contrast, pertain only to the adult” (626). This means childishness is the child-like behavior in someone who is expected to be a grown-up. Lyubov even does not care for her family and only aims to live the aristocratic life at her economic crisis. She spends unnecessarily in parties, giving tips for the waiters in restaurants, living the luxurious life in Paris and so on.

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She is stubborn to her thinking and even doesn’t listen to other’s suggestion. She had left for Paris with her lover, when her husband died and the son had been drowned, leaving her two daughters behind. Though her lover had been unfaithful to her and spent all her money, she returns for Paris at the end of the play. She does not realize the sorrows of time and behaves as nothing had happened to her. She becomes nostalgic about her childhood memories with the orchard but cannot make the right decisions to save it. Lyubov imagines the orchard as the same place as in her childhood and exclaims, “Oh, my childhood, my innocence! I used to sleep in this nursery, I looked out from here into the orchard from here, happiness awoke with me each morning, it was just as it is now, then, nothing has changed” (Chekhov 714). She even does not show her maturity in her speaking, she imagines for her mother on a cherry tree laughs at joy by saying, “Look, our dead mother walks in the orchard  . . . in a white dress! . . . It is she!” (714) Though she knows the orchard is being auctioned for sale so soon, she has been lost in her childhood and does not make effort to save the estate. She contemplates for her estate as, “I love this house, without the cherry orchard my life has no meaning for me, if it must be sold, then sell me with the orchard” (723) but does not follow Lopakhin ’s suggestion to lease the estate to save it from selling.

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As Lyubov Andreyevna, Gayeb also shows signs of his childish behaviors by his continual eating of candies. Even Firs, the old valet of the estate treats him like a child and worries whether he is dressed properly or not when he is out and brings him coat when it is cold. He time and again wishes to play, Yasha makes a mockery of his words time and again. Even he could have contributed and made her sister aware to save the estate but finally aims for a job in a bank with six thousand a year. Therefore, the childish behavior which makes them hold their inherited ideologies can also be regarded as their fall.

Lopakhin holds a powerful position as a realist thinker in this play. He is a man of action and becomes successful local merchant though he has been considered “little peasant” (709) by Lyubov Andreyevna. He makes money out of nowhere and explains himself as “my father was a peasant, it is true, and here I am in white waistcoat and tan shoes. Like a pig in a pastry shop . . . . I’ve made a lot of money, but if you think about it, analyze it, I am peasant through and through” (709). Lopakhin plays a vital role to show the changes in the Russian society. He is a calculative and thinking person about his deeds. He suggests Lyubov understand the change of realistic modern time and again. Realism believes in practical truth rather than raw ideas and beliefs as J. Andrew Kirk argues, realism “has generally been assumed that scientific method is predicated on a realist construction of the world, such that scientific theories are to be interpreted literally, i.e. what they state about the world is true. Realism is opposed to idealism” (238).

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Lopakhin gives insights about the changing capitalistic worldview to Lyubov and suggests her to save her estate time and again throughout the play. When she stubbornly shows her idealistic aristocratic norms and childish behaviors regarding her responsibilities on her own property which was about to fall, Lopakhin buys the property with his money and becomes the new owner of the state. His philosophies, actions and calculative values of modern time make him a realist and that makes him representative to emerging capitalistic power of the Russian society.

On the other hand, Trifimov also acts as a realist thinker. He is the man of letters and foresees changes in the Russian society. His words show his philosophical maturity and action that tries to change in thinking of Lyubov Andreyevna ’s family as a family tutor. He happens to know the cherry orchard as the upper-class oppression and indicates the change in the hierarchy of the Russian society by his words as “All Russia is our orchard. It is a great and beautiful land, and, there are many wonderful places in it. . . . We are at least two hundred years behind the times, we have as yet absolutely nothing we have no definite attitude towards the past, we only philosophize, complain of boredom, or drink vodka” (Chekhov 720-21). In these words, he evokes the change is inevitable in the then society. He also suggests Lyubov look forward to changing on the day of auction and not to contemplate about the past as, “Whether or not the estate sold today – does it really matters? That’s all done with long ago; there is no turning back, the path is overgrown. Be calm, my dear. One must not deceive oneself; at least once in one’s life, one ought to look the truth straight in the eye” (723). In his words, Trifimov seems to be philosophical, realist and well known about the state of the human kind at the then time of Russian society. He accepts the new environment and sees in the present all Russia as a cherry orchard. Therefore, he can be considered as the realist as well as a modernist thinker in the play.

Overall, The Cherry Orchard is the play that shows the changing scenario of the Russian society with the rise of capitalism and modernism. It is the clash between the ideal landed aristocracy and realistic capitalistic norms and values through its characters in the play. The cutting down of the beautiful garden known as the cherry orchard at the end of the play shows the tragic fall of the landed aristocracy. The ideal feudalistic hangover, as well as childish behavior of Lyubov Andreyevna and her brother, makes them lose their estate along with the cherry orchard. On the other hands, the realistic and capitalistic mind of Lopakhin establishes him as the new owner of the fallen estate. Therefore, this play can be regarded as the clash between idealism and realism in reference to landed aristocracy and capitalism or modernism.

Works Cited

Baehr, Stephen L. “The Machine in Chekhov’s Garden: Progress and Pastoral in the Cherry Orchard.” The Slavic and East European Journal 43.1 (1999): 99-121. PDF.

Chekhov, Anton. The Cherry Orchard. Performance and Theatre Studies: A Course Packet. Kirtipur: T.U. Book Center, 2016. Print.

Evdokimova, Svetlana. “What’s so Funny about Losing One’s Estate, or Infantilism in The Cherry Orchard.” The Slavic and East European Journal 44.4 (2000): 623-48. PDF.

Griffiths, Martin. Realism, Idealism and International Politics: A Reinterpretation. London: Routledge, 2002. PDF.

Kirk, J. Andrew. The Future of Reason, Science and Faith: Following Modernity and Post-Modernity. Hampshire: Asgate Publishing Limited, 2007. PDF.

Latham, Jacqueline E. M. “The Cherry Orchard as Comedy.” Educational Theatre Journal 10.1 (1958): 21-29. PDF.

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