Ranevsky's character is defined by flight, both physical and emotional. Physically, she is continuously fleeing from location: the play opens with her flight from Paris, home to Russia, after a suicide attempt provoked by her lover. We learn later that a similar flight occurred five years previously, after the closely spaced deaths (only separated by a month) of her son and her husband. The play will end with her fleeing again, from the estate she has lost, back to Paris and the arms of the very same lover. And her flight from Paris to Russia is paralleled by an emotional flight from the present to the past: she is a woman besieged by memories of her tragic adult life and seeking refuge in her memories of an idyllic childhood. Her first words on returning to the estate, "nursery!" indicates this. Her vision of her own mother walking through the cherry orchard reinforces the picture of a woman suffering from illusions, the illusion that she can recapture the idyll of her childhood and block out the tragic events of the past six years from her mind. Her rejections of Lopakhin's business proposals as being "vulgar" also seems a willful ignorance on her part, a stubborn refusal to accept the unpleasant facts about her situation and a flight from a fact about her current life, which is that she is impoverished and in debt.
Ranevsky's flight home, both in body and in mind, is doomed from the very start of the play, for two reasons. First of all, home is not the safe place she might have imagined it to be; it too is tainted by tragedy, as she is soon reminded of by the appearance of Trofimov, her dead son's tutor. She is unable to return to her idyllic childhood state; the memories of her tragic adult life remain with her, either in the form of Trofimov or the telegrams from her lover in Paris. Secondly, she cannot flee from her debts; the bank will remember them if she does not. But Ranevsky is paralyzed in the face of the impending destruction; unable to stay in the present emotionally, her flight from that present defeats itself, by making the loss of her estate and the destruction of the orchard inevitable.
But Ranevsky is kind and generous, and we get the feeling that for her, ideals such as love are not empty words for she has suffered for them. And she is well loved by not only her family, but also by Lopakhin, who says she has done many kind things for him and who also comments on her "irresistible eyes". So she is a sympathetic character. This sympathetic nature gives her loss of the orchard a poignancy that has made some call the play a tragedy. For Ranevsky identifies herself with the orchard, and she says in Act Two that if the orchard is sold, she might as well be sold with it. The orchard also symbolizes her memories, and we can see this in the fact that it places an identical emotional burden on her as her memories do; it draws her towards the past and prevents her from moving on with her life. The symbolism of the play is tightly woven with its physical details here, for destruction of the orchard—the physical symbol of her memories—gives Ranevsky a chance to move beyond those memories, a chance she will hopefully take.
Lopakhin is the character, more than any other, constantly in charge of driving the play forward; he is its source of energy and action. He is a character full of details, plans, and action; he outlines a plan for Ranevsky to save her estate, offers her a loan, ends up buying the estate in the end and readily informs us of the price of champagne (Act Four). But he too, like Ranevsky, is fleeing emotionally from his memories, which are memories of his brutal peasant upbringing.
What seems to hold back his flight is his attachment to Ranevsky. In his first moments on-stage, he tells of a time when his father beat him, but he also relates Ranevsky's subsequent kindness to him. Ranevsky is a member of the same landowning class that oppressed his forefathers and is also a particularly kind figure from his days as a peasant. Lopakhin's attitude towards Ranevsky is thus ambivalent from the start. He is grateful for her "kindness," but at the same time she is a key figure in memories that he has sought to put behind him, both in his manner of dress and through constant, hard work. This tension resolves itself finally in Act Three of the play, when he buys the orchard. His insensitivity to Ranevsky is not merely the result of his peasant upbringing, and the fact that he does not end up proposing to Varya, which would make him part of Ranevsky's family, is not accidental. They both symbolize the fact that he considers himself to have broken free from, or "forgotten," his past, and this means also breaking free from and forgetting his gratitude to Ranevsky.
Trofimov is the "eternal student", as Lopakhin calls him, and he provides most of the explicit ideological discussion in the play. Trofimov makes the play's social allegory explicit. He idealizes work, as well as the search for truth, decrying the poor living conditions in which most Russian peasants live, as well as the "Russian intellectuals" whose inactivity he deems responsible for these conditions. His idealism and intellectualism make him a foil for the practical, materialistic Lopakhin, but he also serves as a foil for Ranevsky. His emphasis on truth over love and beauty and his orientation towards the future, contrasts with her devotion to love and beauty and her obsession with the past. These elements of both their personalities become united in the cherry orchard. Whereas Ranevsky sees the orchard as beautiful and interesting, to Trofimov it is a symbol of Russia's oppressive past and the dehumanization caused by families such as Ranevsky's through the institution of serfdom.
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