Anton Chekhov’s last play, “The Cherry Orchard,” chronicles the downfall of a Russian aristocratic family via the foreclosure of their estate and cherry orchard. Although written as a tragic comedy, the comedy is more sardonic than slapstick, making the social commentary on changing Russian society the predominant focus. For hundreds of years, the Russian empire was strictly stratified into socioeconomic classes. At the top was the monarchy and the landed gentry, and at the bottom were the serfs: laborers bound under the feudal system to work on an estate. Essentially, Russia was a slave owning society. In 1861, Tsar Alexander II passed the emancipation reform, freeing all serfs and throwing the socioeconomic caste system into chaos. The play explores the confusion following the disruption of social order in the wake of the emancipation of serfs.
The evolving relationship between the Russian aristocrat Lyobov and her former serf, Lopahin, mirrors the themes of confusion, uncertainty, and differing responses to newly introduced social mobility. Madam Lyobov returns from Paris to save her cherry orchard from being sold, but she is bankrupt. Lopahin, her former serf, offers a solution: chop down the orchard and rent the land to summer visitors.
In their respective roles, Lyobov and Lopahin perfectly embody the main thematic conflict of the play: the competition between tradition and modernism. Lyobov is a poor aristocrat. Lopahin, a former serf, is a wealthy businessman. They’ve switched positions of wealth according to their societal labels. The irony of an outright reversal of societal norms complicates their relationship with one another while juxtaposing tradition with their circumstance. And in the ultimate role reversal, Lopahin buys the orchard at auction. The serf becomes the master and the aristocrat becomes homeless.
A bitter-sweet moment, Lopahin feels guilty for causing Lyobov suffering, even in his triumph of social mobility. The irony is, Lopahin spends most of the play desperately trying to convince Lyobov to save her estate by renting out parcels of land to summer visitors; he is more invested in preserving her childhood home than she is. She is in part responsible for her own downfall because she was so self-deluded that she refused to face the truth of her destitution. The disillusionment of the upper class could very well lead to their own collapse, as discussed in the Ted Talk “Beware, Fellow Plutocrats, the Pitchforks are Coming”. Ignoring the injustice of economic inequality is not just lacking in empathy, it’s against the self-interest of the rich. Whether it be through revolution, war, or being outbid of your family estate, equality will prevail at the cost of the elite so long as they hide their heads in the clouds of ‘just desserts’.