Anton Chekhov and Impact of Industrial Revolution on Russia -The Asian Age

The Cherry Orchard is one of the best-known plays by Anton Chekhov. This play was staged in Russia for the first time in 1903, one year before Anton Chekhov died. This play is still esteemed as a timeless literary work for vividly representing the impact Industrial Revolution had on the mindsets of Russian people as well as on the social and environmental physiognomies of Russia during the late 19th century. It depicts a small Russian town where a lady named Ranyevskaya is found coming back from Paris in order to sell a cherry grove she and her family have been owning for many years.

Ranyevskaya had left Russia for France following the tragic and premature deaths of her husband and son. She is actually on a pursuit to keep away from traumatic memories from her past. The remembrances of her dead son and husband keep on haunting her all the time.

Therefore, she decides to move away from her Russian hometown to dive into a deliberate oblivion but painful memories are too tenacious to be shaken off. The cherry trees, the household in which she used to live bear glaring shadows from her past and all along keep her in a state of pathos. Her efforts to sell out the cherry estate don’t have any monetary aim. Rather she intends to break off all her ties with her bygone days. She was victimized by misfortune through the untimely deaths of her husband and son while the cherry trees would fall a prey to the deforestation caused by the monstrous advent of industrial expansion in Russia.

This play makes intensive references to the socio-economic metamorphosis of Russia as a result of which the livelihood of most of the Russians had a massive change. People started to view environmental resources as dispensable things and attached more preference to the construction of factories, houses, shops and marketplaces on pieces of land occupied by trees and forests. This is how the blithe form of nature was being disfigured for the sake of industrialization. Monetary gains became more important than the value of heritage which is why we find some characters of the play endorsing the process of making life mechanized, moving away from the quietude, placidity and verdure of nature. Looking at this thematic point of the play, we can evaluate The Cherry Orchard from an ecocritical perspective, as ecocriticism examines the relationship between human beings and natural entities as illustrated in literature and looks into the way people’s attitude towards nature keeps on changing with the passage of time and the sanctity of nature is hardly taken care of.

Ranyevskaya is found remorseful in some parts of the play while thinking about her plans to sell out the cherry trees which have been profoundly attached to her life since her childhood. She calls back the lovely memories linked with the cherry trees through the following dialogue: “Oh, my childhood, my innocence! In this nursery I slept, from this room I looked out at the orchard and happiness woke with me every morning.”

Ranyevskaya’s utterance of the word “innocence” shows how blissful and sanctified time she had during her tender age living close to the cherry grove. Her emotional leaning towards the cherry trees also get reflected in the dialogue cited above. Her exasperating struggle with memory and the agony caused by the idea of disposing the cherry trees are more sharply presented in the following words of Ranyevskaya, “If only the millstone could be lifted from my neck. If only I could forget my past.”

Ranyevskaya’s daughter Anya is also very fond of her household shaded by the cherry trees. Her delightful expressions about her home come up in this dialogue, “My room, my windows, just as if I had never been away. I’ll get up in the morning, I’ll run out into the orchard.” Like her mother, Anya also treats the cherry grove like a playmate. The cherry trees have been virtually sketched like a living character in this play by Anton Chekhov.

Gayev, another significant character of the play is Ranyevskaya’s brother. His approach to ancestral assets and endowments is an idealistic one. He also intends to sell out the cherry orchard but like his sister, the thought of splitting up with the cherry trees and terminating affiliation with the concerned plot of land saddens him. He is also found very nostalgic when he says, “Dear bookcase! Most esteemed bookcase! I salute your existence, which for more than a hundred years now has been directed towards the shining ideals of goodness and of truth”. Looking at the books lying on the shelves reminds Gayev of the precious lessons he and forefathers gathered from them on the holiness of honesty and ethics. In another few dialogues, Gayev is found in a state of delirium when he gets too outrageous at the obligation to sell out the cherry estate. He says, “I swear, upon my honour, upon whatever you like, that the estate is will not be sold.” Gayev sounds to be in a stupor of acute sadness in these words. These words are ironical too as the cherry trees cannot be saved from being sold out at the end of the play.

Another indispensable character in the play is Firs, an old janitor of the cherry orchard and the oldest figure of the play. He is eighty-seven years old and has been looking after the cherry trees since his boyhood. Serfdom prevailed all over Russia while he was young. However, Firs is not found having grievances about serfdom. Rather we find him regretting the end of serfdom in Russia in 1861 in one of his dialogues in which he says, “The peasants belonged to the masters and the masters to the peasants. Now you can’t make any sense of it.” These words from Firs speak of his satisfaction over the past years and also mark the point that the condition of Russia after the elimination of serfdom seems insensible to him. According to him, serfdom did not raise any discrimination or antagonism between workers and landlords. A complacent leaning towards the past and a grudging look at the present deserve to be noted from this dialogue which signifies one of the features of modernism in literature keeping in view the fact that Anton Chekhov passed the final few years of his lifetime during the outset of 20th century. 

At the end of the last act of the play we find Firs saying, “Nothing left. Nothing……Oh you….sillybilly….” And while speaking out these words Firs is found trembling and soon he collapses on the stage and all his physical movement stops. It’s not categorically stated in the text of the play whether Firs died or not but the mental jolt he suffered through the felling of the cherry trees at the end of the play breaks him down. This is another flabbergasting instance pointing at the distress inflicted on people when their beloved environmental surroundings are invaded.

The gradual shift of Russia from a feudalistic social order is another point to be ticked off in The Cherry Orchard. Following the end of serfdom in Russia which came about during 1861, a number of landlords started losing their affluence and power. On the other hand, some liberated serfs became rich enough to buy plots of land that earlier belonged to their landlords. Ranyevskaya is an example of the landlords whose wealth and pomp declined after 1861 and Lopakhin, another character in the play, is an envoy of those former slaves who became well-off landowners very rapidly as a result of the social transition that flooded Russia during the late 19th century. 

The Cherry Orchard is a tragicomedy in its type with more tragic components than the comic ones. The play concludes with the fall of Firs on the ground in a state of consternation at the sound of the axe slaughtering the cherry trees coming from the background. Ranyevskaya is also found shedding tears as the decimation of the cherry trees begins. She leaves Russia to move back to France in a dismayed mood. The Cherry Orchard conveys the message that it’s a lamentable thing to abandon or vitiate inherited resources, particularly the environmental ones. All the focal figures in The Cherry Orchard appear to be disconcerted because of their failure to preserve the cherry trees which they had inherited from their predecessors.

Mahfuz Ul Hasib Chowdhury
is a contributor to different
English newspapers and magazines.