In The Cherry Orchard, memory is seen both as source of personal identity and as a burden preventing the attainment of happiness. Each character is involved in a struggle to remember, but more importantly in a struggle to forget, certain aspects of their past. Ranevsky wants to seek refuge in the past from the despair of her present life; she wants to remember the past and forget the present. But the estate itself contains awful memories of the death of her son, memories she is reminded of as soon as she arrives and sees Trofimov, her son's tutor. For Lopakhin, memories are oppressive, for they are memories of a brutal, uncultured peasant upbringing. They conflict with his identity as a well-heeled businessman that he tries to cultivate with his fancy clothes and his allusions to Shakespeare, so they are a source of self-doubt and confusion; it is these memories that he wishes to forget. Trofimov is concerned more with Russia's historical memory of its past, a past which he views as oppressive and needing an explicit renunciation if Russia is to move forward. He elucidates this view in a series of speeches at the end of Act Two. What Trofimov wishes Russia to forget are the beautiful and redeeming aspects of that past. Firs, finally, lives solely in memory—most of his speeches in the play relate to what life was like before the serfs were freed, telling of the recipe for making cherry jam, which now even he can't remember. At the end of the play, he is literally forgotten by the other characters, symbolizing the "forgotten" era with which he is so strongly associated.
A recurrent theme throughout Russian literature of the nineteenth century is the clash between the values of modernity and the values of old Russia. Modernity is here meant to signify Western modernity, its rationalism, secularism and materialism. Russia, especially its nobility, had been adopting these values since the early eighteenth century, in the time of Peter the Great. But much of late nineteenth-century Russian literature was written in reaction to this change, and in praise of an idealized vision of Russia's history and folklore. Western values are often represented as false, pretentious, and spiritually and morally bankrupt. Russian culture by contrast—for example, in the character of Prince Myshkin in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, himself a representative of the old landowning nobility, or Tatyana in Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin—is exalted as honest and morally pure.
The conflict between Gayev and Ranevsky on the one hand and Lopakhin and Trofimov on the other can be seen as emblematic of the disputes between the old feudal order and Westernization. The conflict is made most explicit in the speeches of Trofimov, who views Russia's historical legacy as an oppressive one, something to be abandoned instead of exalted, and proposes an ideology that is distinctly influenced by the Western ideas such as Marxism and Darwinism.
Nature, as represented by the orchard has significant value in The Cherry Orchard, both as something of inherent beauty and as a connection with the past. Ranevsky is overjoyed in the presence of the cherry orchard, and even Lopakhin, who destroys it, calls it the "most beautiful place on earth". And though he doesn't save the orchard, he talks with joy about 3,000 acres of poppies he has planted and looks forward to a time when his cottage-owners will enjoy summer evenings on their verandahs, perhaps planting and beautifying their properties.
Nature is also seen as a source of both illusion and memory in this play. For example, Ranevsky's illusory sighting of her dead mother in Act One. In Nature, Gayev sees "eternity", a medium that joins together the past and present with its permanence. But the orchard is being destroyed, the idyllic countryside has telegraph poles running through it, and Ranevksy and Gayev's idyllic stroll through the countryside is interrupted by the intrusion of a drunkard. In fact, it is the very permanence ascribed to Nature that, through the play, is revealed to be an illusion.
The Cherry Orchard is on one level, a naturalistic play because it focuses on scientific, objective, details. It thus is like realism, in that it attempts to portray life "as it really is". Of course, these details are selected, sketched and presented in a certain way, guided by the author's intent. It is not actually science we are dealing with here. But throughout his career, Chekhov frequently stated his goal as an artist to present situations as they actually were, and not to prescribe solutions. And this is revealed in the way Chekhov's selection and presentation of details. Whenever we feel a desire to overly sympathize with one character, whenever we feel a desire to enter the play, so to speak, and take up their side (and their perspective), Chekhov shows us the irony in it-for example, when Lopakhin, when Lopakhin gloats about how far he has come from his brutal peasant origins, he does it in a brutal manner, thus betraying those origins. Chekhov's irony takes us out of the play and put back in our seats. This is how he creates his "objectivity".
The orchard is the massive, hulking presence at the play's center of gravity; everything else revolves around and is drawn towards it. It is gargantuan; Lopakhin implies in Act One that the Lopakhin's estate spreads over 2,500 acres, and the cherry orchard is supposed to cover most of this. There were never any cherry orchards of nearly this size in Russia. And the fact that an orchard of this gargantuan size, which, by the estimate of Donald Rayfield, would produce more than four million pounds of cherries each crop, cannot economically sustain Ranevksy is an absurdity.
But it is absurd for a reason. After all, the orchard used to produce a crop every year, which was made into cherry jam. But, as Firs informs us, now the recipe has been lost. It is thus a relic of the past, an artifact, of no present use to anyone except as a memorial to or symbol of the time in which it was useful. And its unrealistic size further indicates that it is purely a symbol of that past. In a very real sense, the orchard does not exist in the present. It is something that is perceived by the various characters and reacted to in ways that indicate how these characters feel about what the orchard represents: which is some aspect of memory.
What "memory" means for each character and what it represents varies. Each character sees-sometimes literally—a different aspect of the past, either personal or historical, in the orchard. Ranevksy, for example, perceives her dead mother walking through the orchard in Act One; for her, the orchard is a personal relic of her idyllic childhood. Trofimov, on the other hand, near the end of Act Two sees in the orchard the faces of the serfs who lived and died in slavery on Ranevsky's estate; for him, the orchard represents the memory of their suffering . For Lopakhin, the orchard is intimately tied to his personal memories of a brutal childhood, as well as presenting an obstacle to the prosperity of both himself and Ranevsky.
Though each character has their own perspective, there is a rough division between the old and the young, with the age cut-off being between Lopakhin and Ranevksy; the young tend to view the orchard in a negative light and the old view it more positively. This further reinforces the orchard's symbolic identification with the past. The one exception to this may be Varya. But this exception proves the rule, for though Varya often talks about the estate, she never mentions the orchard itself at all. For her, it is irrelevant, and the estate is what is important, for she is its manager, and its ownership is directly connected to her livelihood.
No one knows what it is when we first hear it in Act Two, and when we last hear it, the only character onstage is in no position to comment. It is the sound of breaking string, an auditory symbol of forgetting. It first is heard in the play after Gayev gives a soliloquoy on the eternity of nature; Firs tells us it was heard before, around the time the serfs were freed (a seminal event in Russian history). It is last heard just as Firs, the old manservant who functions as the play's human connection to the past, passes away, and is juxtaposed against the sound of an axe striking a cherry tree. With its simple image of breaking line, the sound serves to unify the play's social allegory with its examination of memory, providing a more graphic counterpart to the Cherry Orchard's hovering, off-stage presence.
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