Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Struggle Over Memory

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.

Read a short essay about how memory plays a similar role in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

Modernity versus Old Russia

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.

Read more about Prince Myshkin in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot.

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.

Read more about nineteenth-century social change in Russia as a theme in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.