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The Cherry Orchard

Anton Chekhov

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts


Many of the most important and traumatic events in the play—Grisha's drowning, the sale of the orchard, Ranevsky's suicide attempt—either happen before the play's action or off-stage. Why do you think Chekhov would stage some of the most dramatic events outside the confines of the play itself? What effect does this have on the play?

A good way to start answering this question is to ask what purposes Chekhov might have been trying to serve in writing the play. Was he writing a play to entertain people, to convince them of a specific point, to document a social problem or to meditate upon certain themes and ideas? It seems from the tone and mood of The Cherry Orchard that entertainment was certainly a goal, but so was an exploration of certain complex issues, relating both to the private sphere of the family and to the public sphere of Russian life. These issues might be lost in a more action-packed play.

We can also ask what the play would have been like had there been more action in it. This probably would have shifted emphasis away from the characters' internal psychological struggles to their external, physical struggles. A good way to demonstrate this would be to document the way Chekhov shows characters waiting for news from outside the confines of the play, relating that news, and reacting to that news. A specifically good example would be Act Three, where we are given Ranevsky waiting for news from the auction, Lopakhin relating the news of the triumph, and Ranevsky (and everyone else's) reaction to it. By not presenting the auction itself, Chekhov keeps us focused on the drama between Lopakhin and Ranevsky, their struggles with themselves and their struggles with each other, their feelings of powerlessness, of triumph, and of heartbreak. This emphasis tells us something about Chekhov's motives for writing the story, showing that not only did Chekhov want to discuss broad issues, he wanted to discuss these issues through the inner, psychological lives of his characters.

When a drunkard stumbles upon several of the characters in the countryside near the end of Act Two, each one reacts in a different way to his intrusion and his demands. What do these reactions tell us about the characters in question?

This is a question that demands close-reading of the specified section of text. The first key is to identify the reactions themselves. This not only involves saying what each character did; you must intepret their actions and speech sufficiently to decide their emotional or psychological state. Varya, for example, demands soon after the appearance of the drunkard that everyone goes home. Why? Because she is cold? No, it is probably because she is extremely perturbed.

The next step is to ask the following question: why does Chekhov represent Varya as being extremely perturbed? Since The Cherry Orchard fuses both a high level of psychological realism with a detailed Symbolism, we can look for two answers to this question. The first is in terms of Varya's psychology-what is it about Varya as a person that would make her perturbed by the sight of a drunkard? The second is in terms of symbols-what does it mean for the ideas that Varya represents to be perturbed or threatened by what the drunkard represents?

At this point, we must involve other portions of the text to help guide us towards an answer. A facet of Varya's psychology has been brought to the forefront by the drunkard, but it must be consistent with, and should be hinted at in other parts of the play; also, our interpretation of Varya's psychology in this particular instance should throw light and cause us to re-evaluate other instances of Varya's behavior (presumably, otherwise the incident would either be irrelevant or superfluous - it would tell us nothing new about Varya, or something that had no connection to the rest of the play). For instance, Varya's continual talk of going to a convent might now seem more likely to be motivated out of a desire for security and safety from the outside world, as opposed to any religious motivation. We can pursue a similar strategy when looking for meaning at the symbolic level—what does Varya represent in other parts of the play, and how is that altered here-and with regards to the other characters.

Discuss the use of the pauses in The Cherry Orchard. How does Chekhov use the pause for the purposes of characterization? What other ends does it serve?

A good example of a pause used for characterization occurs in the first moments of the play. Lopakhin pauses during his recollection of his first encounter with Ranevsky. The immediate question we want to ask whenever someone makes a pause in the course of natural speech is - why? So we look to the words surrounding the pause. Lopakhin has just remembered that Ranevsky called him a peasant. After the pause, he admits that it was true; he was a peasant. But he concedes it as if conceding a point in an argument. The implication is that Lopakhin was having an argument, with himself-that the pause conceals that argument beneath Lopakhin's self-censorship. Which indicates a conflict between two different parts of Lopakhin—the part which might be in love with Ranevsky and the part which now takes offense at being called a peasant. This points to an inner conflict in Lopakhin. Such conflicts are often concealed behind dramatic pauses.

Pauses can also be used effectively as methods of creating suspense or anticipation in a situation. What will a given character say or do next? They also have the effect of speeding up or slowing down the tempo of an Act. For example, Act Two has sixteen pauses, the most pauses of any Act; and this most likely contributes to the pastoral, tranquil feel of that Act.

Suggested Essay Topics

In Act One, Ranevsky thinks she sees her mother in the cherry orchard. At the end of Act Two, Trofimov talks of "faces" gazing at he and Anya from the leaves and trunks of the trees. Compare and contrast these two "visions", discussing what they tell us about each character and that character's attitude towards the orchard.

Discuss Chekhov's use of irony. Is it stable or unstable? In other words, is there a privileged viewpoint free from irony in the play, or is the irony subversive of all the viewpoints in general? Does Chekhov ever hint, among all the different views of life expressed in the play, what his own viewpoint might be? And how does Chekhov create irony? Discuss his use of juxtaposition and contrast.

Discuss the role of music in The Cherry Orchard. How does it affect the mood of the play? Does it play a role in the play's symbolism?

What role does Yephikodov play in the story? Is he simply a source of comic relief, or does he also contribute to the play's important themes?

There are several characters in The Cherry Orchard who are frequently mentioned, yet never appear on stage. Discuss their effect on the development of the story, playing particular attention to their effect on Mrs. Ranevsky.

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