Firs enters and talks about how good things were back in the old days, before the serfs were freed. Lopakhin, as the son of serfs, sarcastically agrees, "At least there were plenty of floggings." Firs does not hear him and remarks that he can't understand life anymore.
Trofimov enters. He and Lopakhin exchange some barbed words. Lopakhin calls Trofimov an "eternal student" and wonders if he has reached his fiftieth birthday yet. Trofimov calls this an old joke. Lopakhin then asks Trofimov, "What do you think of me?" Trofimov replies that Lopakhin, a soon-to-be- millionaire, is a beast of prey as necessitated by the role he fulfills in nature. Everyone laughs, then Gayev asks him to resume a discussion about pride that the two were having earlier.
Trofimov asserts the folly of pride. His reasoning: man is a "pretty poor physiological specimen", and most of the human race is in misery, "the only thing to do" he says, "is work". Despite his pessimism about man's current state, he expresses optimism for the future. He abuses Russian intellectuals for having no idea what work means. Lopakhin agrees with him, to a certain extent. According to Lopakhin, he gets up at five o'clock every morning and does nothing but work for the rest of the day. He then proclaims that given the natural splendor of Russia, he is disappointed with its people. Its people should be "giants", he says. Ranevsky warns them to be careful for what they ask for, because "giants" could end up causing more trouble than they are worth.
Gayev begins giving what seems to be almost a recitation of a poem about nature and how it unites the past with the present, before he is silenced by Anya. In the ensuing deep silence, the sound of a cable or string breaking can be heard; no one is quite sure what it is, but Firs maintains he last heard similar sounds before the freeing of the serfs.
Suddenly a drunken man comes by, asking for directions, and being a nuisance. Ranevsky makes him leave by giving him several gold pieces. Varya is frightened by the encounter, so the entire party, with the exception of Trofimov and Anya, decide to leave. Trofimov and Anya then discuss their increasingly close relationship, which Trofimov describes as being "above love", though Varya is suspicious of it developing into a romance. Trofimov gives another speech about the debt all Russia is under from the legacy of serfdom, but how he has tremendous hopes for the future. The two go down by the river, leaving Varya alone in the woods, calling out for Anya in the dark.
In this section of the play, Chekhov makes explicit the social allegory that has, until now, been only implicit in the characters of Lopakhin and Ranevsky. The agent of this change in the text is Trofimov. Trofimov serves as a foil for Lopakhin. His idealism contrasts with Lopakhin's materialism, his high-flown rhetoric underscores Lopakhin's lack of sophistication. Yet they share a similar disdain for the past, which is symbolized by the cherry orchard. With Trofimov, however, this disdain has an intellectual foundation, whereas Lopakhin's is rooted in personal memories.
To Trofimov, the cherry orchard is a symbol of oppression: its leaves are full of the faces of people that Anya's family "once owned," and it is full of the legacy of serfdom. Trofimov rails against Russian intellectuals, who merely talk about ideas but never act on them, while he exalts practical men and men of action. To Trofimov, all this is evidence of a need to break with the past, to forge a bold new future, through work. Through the effect of his ideas on Anya, Trofimov manages to decrease her affection for the orchard; "Why is it that I'm not as fond of the orchard as I used to be?" she asks him. He replies, "All Russia is our orchard," thus explicitly broadening the scope of the play, beyond the confines of Ranevsky's estate, to Russian society as a whole. The debate in which Trofimov is engaged is over who will write the history of the orchard, thereby choosing all that the orchard represents. Some see it as a symbol of beauty and some see it as a symbol of Russia's oppressive past. Judging by his conversion of Anya, it seems that Trofimov is succeeding in spreading his opinion of the orchard to future generations.
There is some irony, however, in Trofimov's speech. First of all, his position seems to have arisen in intellectual conversation with Gayev. And if anyone fits Trofimov's description of the Russian intellectual, then Trofimov and Gayev do - their lives are spent in conversation. Trofimov is the "eternal student", according to Lopakhin; he has been studying all his adult life; it has apparently made him very "ugly", at least according to Ranevsky. He is the stereotypical scholar, definitely not a man of action.
In contrast to Gayev, Lopakhin and Trofimov appear remarkably similar. One might think Trofimov would admire Lopakhin. Lopakhin seems to embody the practicality of which Trofimov speaks: he gets up at "five every morning" in order to work all day long. He subscribes to a common sense version of the more sophisticated Social Darwinism that Trofimov advocates. But instead of his admiration, Lopakhin is the subject of a (somewhat jovial) disdain, and the feeling is mutual. For while Trofimov appeals to ideals such as truth and humanity to frame what is essentially a socialist utopian ideology—heavily influenced by the works of Karl Marx as well as Darwin's theory of evolution—Lopakhin works, not for humanity, but for money. The "sound of a breaking cable" comes during a silence in this debate; and Firs, the voice of the past, dislikes it intensely. The last time he has heard it was around the time the serfs were freed, a momentous event in Russian history that marked the beginning of the end for the aristocracy, the beginning of confusion for Firs, and the beginning of a new age for Trofimov. The breaking of the cable thus becomes identified with the end of an era. It is a break in time. To reverse Gayev's metaphor, the dead and the living are now "unjoined". And it is now heard just before the sale of the cherry orchard, a momentous event in the personal history of the Ranevsky's family. Thus, the sound of the breaking cable explicitly links the personal history of the characters with the wider world of Russian society.