The Cherry Orchard by Chekhov is Tragic but not a Tragedy
The Cherry Orchard by Chekhov is tragic but not a tragedy
It is very difficult to pigeonhole the modern drama into a tragedy or a comedy. A drama can be either of the two in two ways: either its vision of life is tragic, or the form used to present that vision is essentially tragic2. The sense of life pervading the world of The Cherry Orchard is tragic but there are some elements in the play due to which the tragic sense does not completely permeate the atmosphere of the play. Consequently the tragedy masquerades on the stage as a comedy. Critics who call the play a comedy3 have concentrated mostly upon the comic touches which are lent to certain characters such as Lopakhin’s mooing like a cow, Trofimov’s crash from the stairs, Lopakhin mistakenly receiving a beating, etc. Those who call it a tragedy are focusing upon the effect of time passing and leaving a ruined generation in its wake4. This seems a simplified way of dealing with the play. To me it is neither a tragedy nor a comedy. Chekhov’s characters seem tragic but the tragedy is not treated as the fate of humanity i.e. it is not emphasized on stage. In a tragedy the characters on stage as well as the audience seem to identify with the fate of the protagonist thus intensifying the tragic experience. This identification is prevented in The Cherry Orchard. Instead, the characters are apathetic to each other. They do not recognize each other’s tragic potential. In this way, the emotional experience is distanced from the audience. Consequently the misery and sorrow experienced by the characters in the play do not assume tragic proportions. They remain entirely personal. Chekhov’s comic touches serve to lift the play above the tear-jerking sentimental stuff and the audience does not lose objectivity.
It seems very simple to perceive the voices of past, present and future in The Cherry Orchard as belonging to an old order and a new order as well the present5. But it is much more than the exposure of the social change. Lyubov and Gaev are absentee landlords and therefore, they are economic parasites. They do not play any active part in earning money for themselves. It goes to Chekhov‘s credit that without being sentimental he creates characters that retain their humanity even if they are usurping the resources of the land. Lyubov and Gaev belong to a class of people, which is going to be effaced from the social scene. These characters are also a product of their class like all the others. Chekhov does not suggest at any point in the play that these two characters could have transcended their social makeup and become the denizens of the new order to which Lopakhin belongs. Though they realize the cherry orchard will be sold, yet they are unable to do any thing about it because they have been used to an easy lifestyle and they cannot discard it. They have emotional affiliation with the cherry orchard, which prevents them from taking the drastic measures suggested by lopakhin like cutting up the trees. Their tragedy lies in their being what they are, and what they can not become. They belong to that privileged class of human beings where one has no calling for hard work and can lead an indulgent life style. They are unable to rise above the socioeconomic forces which govern them. In their own way, they are both reluctant to face reality because their status in society has never yet pitted them against reality. As Anya tells Varya:
ANYA. [Dreamily] It’s six years since father died. Then
only a month later little brother Grisha was drowned in
the river, such a pretty boy he was, only seven. It was
more than mamma could bear, so she went away, went
away without looking back [. . .] (Act 1).
Lyubov goes away to Paris because she is unable to bear her loss. Her husband and son die but she does not accept this fact. Instead she tries to seek refuge in an unreality, in a city where she will be able to forget her loss. The fact that she is not ready to accept her pain by living in Russia shows how unprepared she is for real life. But there is another meaning as well. She can afford to go to Paris; she has the economic means to go to Paris. Her position in life has made it possible for her to choose weather she will face reality or not. Seen in this light, Lyubov is what the socioeconomic force has made her out to be. She is generous to a fault, she spends money without giving a thought to the consequences, she gives heavy tips, and she gives gold pieces to beggars. Her generosity alone is enough to set her on the road to financial ruin. It can be said the she is too tender hearted to know what is financial prudence. But this will not be true. She can afford to have a tender heart and generous nature because she has never been taught economy. Gaev on the other hand is also characterized as a lazy man who hides himself behind a philosophy of eternal optimism, just like Semyonov-Pishtchik. He makes plans for the estate but they are doomed.
GAEV. [. . .] [To Anya]Your mamma will talk to Lopahin;
of course, he won’t refuse her. And as soon as you are
rested you shall go to Yaroslavl to the Countess, your
great aunt. So we shall all set to work in three directions