It is August 22nd, the day of the auction. Everyone is gathered at a party offstage, dancing a "grande ronde" (in a circle). They then begin a promenade, and enter the stage in pairs: Pischik and Charlotte, Trofimov and Ranevsky, Anya and a Post-Office Clerk, Varya (who is crying) and the local Stationmaster and several others. Finally, Dunyasha enters with a partner. Firs is serving the party in an old servants' uniform. Pischik and Trofimov leave to talk, mainly about Pischik's poor financial situation. Pischik asserts that all he can think about is money. Trofimov teases Varya about how she is supposedly destined to marry Lopakhin. Pischik says he has heard that Nietzsche thought forging-bank notes was acceptable. Pischik complains about trying to scrape together enough money for a mortgage payment he must make the next day. At present, he has 130 rubles out of 310. He then suddenly can't find the 130 rubles. He is briefly driven into a panic, until he finds the bank notes in the lining of his jacket.
Ranevsky wonders why Gayev is not home yet. She wants to know whether or not he has bought the estate and worries out loud about the auction. Trofimov suggests that perhaps the auction has not even taken place yet. Varya assures her that her uncle will have bought the estate with their aunt's money, that their aunt has also agreed to pay off the arrearage on the mortgage. Trofimov expresses his doubts. Lopakhin has accompanied Gayev to the auction. To entertain the guests, Charlotte performs a series of magic tricks she learnt during her days going from town to town with her parents. She performs a card trick, where she guesses the card Pischik has chosen. She performs a ventriloquist feat, throwing her voice so it seems to come out of the floor. And then, much to the everyone's amazement, she takes a rug, and makes Anya and Varya suddenly appear behind it. Pischik professes that he is amazed at Charlotte and has fallen in love with her. The Stationmaster too, is quite impressed.
After she is done, Ranevsky confides in private conversation to Varya that she shouldn't get upset when people tease her about Lopakhin and that in fact she should marry him if she likes him. Varya confesses that she does, but she feels that Lopakhin will never propose because he is too preoccupied with business. And Varya feels that it is improper to propose herself. She expresses again the desire to go to a convent, saying that if she had a few rubles she would. Trofimov mocks her. Yasha soon enters, laughing, telling everyone that Yephikodov has broken a pool cue. Varya is incensed that Yephikodov is even at the party and doubly so that he is playing billiards. She leaves to sort things out.
The structure of this act, more than any other, involves the building of dramatic tension. It has a much quicker pace than the two preceding acts, which contain, as Donald Rayfield notes, zero pauses compared to seven in Act One and sixteen in Act Two. At first, we are presented with dancing, music and, we must imagine, happiness. Then all of a sudden, Varya enters weeping. Immediately, tension is created; we want to know why, in the midst of all this celebration, Varya is so sad.
Two answers emerge. First of all, there is the matter of Lopakhin and his reluctance to propose. Trofimov's teasing of Varya only reveals an underlying sensitivity to the matter. Everyone else treats Lopakhin and Varya's engagement as something that has already happened. But Varya has severe doubts about whether Lopakhin will ever take the time to settle down and get married. She feels that he is much too preoccupied with his business affairs to do so. And the other source of tension is, of course, the auction. Varya has a double interest in the sale of the estate; not only is she Ranevksy's adopted daughter, but she is also Ranevksy's estate manager. Any change in the hands of ownership will probably mean the loss of her job. Not only does this represent a loss of livelihood, it represents the loss of a significant part of her identity, and right now, in the absence of any proposal from Lopakhin, her only source of emotional fulfillment. Chekhov shows Varya as someone who takes pride and fulfillment from her work; she is concerned with the well being of the estate, and often worries and discusses the problems of managing it. And this source of emotional fulfillment is now in danger of being taken from her. In light of this danger, her repeated desire to go to a convent seems to have more to do with security than with religiosity, especially since we have no other indications to suggest that Varya is religious.
Both these concerns are rooted in financial concerns, and, truly, money functions in The Cherry Orchard as an instrument of power. Lopakhin and Deriganov, the rich man interested in buying the estate, both have money; and they therefore have control over what happens to Varya. In other words, while it may seem just that Lopakhin should have power because of his work ethic, we see in Varya a character with a similar work ethic, yet who is powerless; she is powerless to propose to Lopakhin, because she is a woman and powerless to stop the loss of her orchard, because she is the daughter of a profligate mother. Another way of looking at Varya is that she is powerless by two accidents of birth.
We can read this section of the play as criticizing the capitalistic, materialist values of Lopakhin, which were spreading throughout Russian society at this time. By forgetting his personal history, Lopakhin attempts to sever his ties with his peasant past in the same way that Russian society forgets its national history in an attempt to free itself of the legacy of serfdom. But merely freeing the serfs does not free Russian society of its legacy of bondage— as Trofimov notes at the end of Act Two—this legacy has infected all Russians. Varya, a woman without money, is still in a position of powerlessness in society; she still suffers a sort of serfdom to Lopakhin. And this is the central irony of the situation; Lopakhin, the grandson of the oppressed, has now become an oppressor.
Charlotte initially seems to provide simple comic relief; but her comedy will also serve to heighten the poignancy of the loss of the orchard. She breaks the rising tension we feel out of concern for Varya and Ranevksy's well being. The sleight-of-hand tricks she performs—guessing cards, making people appear from behind a rug, ventriloquism—all emphasize illusion. Illusions, are an appropriate subject, because a central illusion is about to be unveiled. This is Ranevsky's illusion of security, her illusion that she can find refuge from the present in memories of the past.
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