Rise of Capitalism as Tragic Element in Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard

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Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (1903) sketches the tragic fall of idealistic values of aristocratic Russian society. Through symbolic representation of the cherry orchard and its characters, Chekhov intends to depict the reality of early twentieth century Russia that saw the fall of traditional values of the society with the rise of capitalistic values. In this play, cherry orchard stands for the root of aristocratic feudal society which has been cut down with the rise bourgeois middle class.

In the play, Ranevskaya and her brother Gayev are the representatives of the feudal society. Ranevskaya is the central character that the play revolves around her. In The Cherry Orchard, we can see the tragic flaw in Ranevskaya and this tragic flaw can be regarded as her inability to adopt the changing values of Russian society. As a result, she has to lose her estate. In this sense, this play can also be considered as a tragic play as the Aristotelian notion of tragedy. On the other hand, Lopakhin defeats the landed aristocracy with capitalistic values and becomes a new master of the estate but could not understand the importance of relationship and becomes the cause of tragic end of his own love. Thereby, this research aims to focuse on the changing worldviews as the means of destruction of the cherry orchard and the tragic fall of its owner.

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Twentieth century saw different changes in worldviews through different types of class struggle and revolution. Russia adopted social realism through revolutions in 1917. Literary practices also contributed to such kinds changes. The fall of feudal landed aristocracy is one of the features during this time with the rise of capitalism in the western economy. Karl Marx regarded capitalism as the response to the feudalistic structure of the then society. M. A. R Habib argues, “Marx’s critique of capitalism, it should be recalled, was dialectical. He regarded capitalist society as an unprecedented historical advance from centuries of benighted and superstitious feudalism” (534). But Marx looks at capitalistic viewpoint as problematic one as, “capitalism reduces all human relationships to a “cash” nexus, self-interest, and egotistical calculation” (528) and also argues, “just as the capitalist mode of production superseded the feudal mode, so the capitalist model will give way to socialism. It is the bourgeoisie itself which creates the instrument of its own destruction: . . .” (530). The induction of capitalistic individuality in European society can be viewed through the literary practices of the early twentieth century. Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (1903) is one of the examples such works which shows the failure of idealistic feudal structure of Russian society. In the play, the cherry orchard, owned by Lyubov Andreyevna, represents the feudal structure which has been cut down by Lopakhin at the end, which shows the rise of individualistic capitalism.

It is debated in literary practices whether The Cherry Orchard falls into tragic or comic themes. This argument has been complicated by playwright Anton Chekhov himself. Chekhov defended Stanislavsky, the founder of the Moscow Art Theatre, by saying he misunderstood the nature of his comedies and wrote to his wife, “How awful it is! An act that ought to take twelve minutes at most lasts forty minutes. There is only one thing I can say: Stanislavsky has ruined my play for me” (qtd. in Latham 21). According to Jacqueline E. M. Latham, “when Stanislavsky had read The Cherry Orchard, he wrote to Chekhov informing him that it was, in fact, a tragedy” (21). According to the Aristotelian notion of the tragic hero, fall of Lyubov Andreyevna and her estate, this play can be considered the tragedy. Herbert J. Muller quotes Aristotle as, “the tragic hero as the good man who gets into trouble through some error or shortcoming for which the standard term has become the tragic flaw” and also regard that tragic flaw as “the protagonist’s weakness” and “the cause of hero’s fall” (159). In The Cherry Orchard, the tragic flaw in Lyubov Andreyevna can be regarded as her inability to understand the changing social norms of values of Russian society. As the central focus of the play, Lyubov is the central character. The play revolves around her. Therefore, this play can also be considered as a tragic play as the Aristotelian notion of tragedy.

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The title The Cherry Orchard has a significant role in the development of the play. The actions of the play revolve around the cherry orchard owned by Lyubov Andreyevna. This beautiful garden stands for the landed aristocratic value and it has been the main point of the concern throughout the play. The cutting down of the cherry orchard signifies the fall of traditional values of landed aristocracy of the time. Stephen L. Baehr brings in the discussion that Donald Rayfield’s view on the cherry orchard as “nudg[ing] the audience into viewing the bankrupt orchard as a model of a country ruined by progress” (119). This shows that the changing scenario of Russian society as the ruin of the garden. The cutting down of the orchard means the ruin of the traditional values with the rise of capitalism in Russian society. Lyubov Andreyevna and her cherry orchard here stand for the feudalistic past of the then Russian society, which fails to hold its position with the rise of capitalistic power as Lopakhin. As the central attraction of the play, the cutting of cherry orchard indicates the tragic end of landed aristocracy.

Lyubov Andreyevna’s failure to adopt the changing scenario of the society seems to be the cause of her ruin or tragic fall. The Cherry Orchard depicts the two fractions of social values in Russian society in which one group holds the feudalistic hangover of contemporary Russia whereas another has the values of modernity. This play indicates the idealistic minds of the landed aristocracy had led their ruin. Such idealistic minds romanticize the things around them to keep hope even in false beliefs. Robert N. Berki postulates “the main characteristics of idealism, which may take two main forms, nostalgia (the evaluative reification of the past), and imagination (the reification of the future, a characteristic of chiliastic thought)” (qtd. in Griffiths 16). These two characteristics can be found in Lyubov Andreyevna. Despite being practical with her time she engages in the nostalgic vision of the past and imagination of an uncertain future. Her stubborn ideas of past and future make her leads her to the failure of her position. In Act I, Lopakhin suggests Lyubov to cut down cutting the cherry trees and lease the land for summer cottages to save the estate to be sold at auction, she argues as “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” (Chekhov 712). Time and again, Lopakin tries to convince Lyubov and her brother to think of his suggestion to save the estate but they do not hear him.

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Lyubov and Gayev live in their childhood memories with the cherry orchard but unable to handle their present. For them, the orchard is a symbol of their youth that they have never left. Jacqueline E. M. Latham regards their stubborn behavior as childishness as “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). Despite making any decisions to save her estate, Lyubov nostalgically roams in her childhood memories with the orchard as, “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” (714). Though she knows the orchard is being auctioned for sale so soon, she has been lost in her childhood and does not make an effort to save the estate. Even though, 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). Lopakhin makes aware of the changing scenario of the time and suggests Lyubov save her estate time and again throughout the play. this leads to the tragic end of her estate and her aristocratic status at the end of the play.

Furthermore, Chekhov gives insights about the reason of tragic fall of the landed aristocracy in the play through Trifimov as “All Russia is our orchard. It is 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” (720-21). In these words, Trifimov evokes the change is inevitable in the then society. Lyubov Andreyevna could not know her responsibility for her children and the estate even in her economic crisis. She spends her money on unnecessary parties, giving gold coins as tips to the waiters, giving loans unnecessarily, and living a luxurious life in Paris. Lopakin’s philosophies, actions and calculative values of modern time postulate him as a representative to emerging capitalistic power of the Russian society and reason for the fall of the landed aristocracy. When Lyubov stubbornly shows her childish behaviors and idealistic mentality, Lopakhin buys the property with his money and becomes the new owner of the estate and cuts down the cherry orchard. Therefore, this play can be regarded as the tragic fall of the landed aristocracy.

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The rise of a capitalistic society is not tragic for the landed aristocracy but also for the relationships. M. A. R. Habib accounts “One of the main sins of capitalism, according to Marx, was that it reduced all human relations to commercial relations” (534). He further quotes Marx as, “capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality” (534). This shows that capital is the anti of relationships which can also found in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. As Lopakhin owns the estate, he underestimates his love relationship with Varya whereas Varya has been hopeful of his response. This love affair is under question throughout this play because Lopakhin doesn’t show his true intentions towards Varya until the end of the play. To this relationship, Chekhov writes to K. S. Stanislavsky, “Lopakhin is a merchant, of course, but he is a decent person in every sense . . . . Varya, a serious and religious girl, is in love with Lopakhin; she wouldn’t be in love with a mere moneygrubber. . . . (Chekhov 732). Chekhov’s interpretation towards Lopakhin shows it is obvious because a capitalist denies any relationship as Marx argues. Varys seems to be deeply in love with him but it is not revealed how much affection he has for Varya. He seems to be calculative and act in business strategies. So, the rise of capitalism can be regarded as a tragic element in the play in reference to human relationships.

To conclude, Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard postulates the tragic fall of landed aristocracy with the rise of capitalism and modernism in western society. It also depicts the drawbacks of capitalism by showing a reduction in human relations. In the play, Lyubov Andreyevna and her cherry orchard are the central attractions of the play represent the landed aristocracy. Lyubov falls down of her position for her idealistic and childish behaviors whereas cherry orchard stands for the root of aristocratic feudal society which has been cut down with the rise bourgeois middle class that is Lopakhin. Though Lopakhin owns the state but cannot understand the values of relationships as Marx argues the drawbacks of capitalism. Therefore, even though Chekhov defends his play to call tragedy, it proves to be a tragedy in reference to the Aristotelian notion of tragedy.

Works Cited

Baehr, Stephen L. “The Machine in Chekhov’s Garden: Progress and Pastoral in the Cherry Orchard.” The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Spring, 1999), pp. 99-121. PDF.

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

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

Habib, M. A. R. A History of Literary Criticism: From Plato to the Present. Victoria: Blackwell Publications, 2005. PDF.

Latham, Jacqueline E. M. “‘The Cherry Orchard” as Comedy.” Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Mar., 1958), pp. 21-29. PDF.

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