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October 17, 2014

Chekov categorized his famous play The Cherry Orchard as a comedy. However, both Lyubov’s sense of overwhelming emptiness after losing the cherry orchard and Lopakhin’s naked hysteria after buying the orchard gave the readers a sense of bitterness. By categorizing it as a comedy, Chekov was clearly indicating something deeper. By focusing on the relationships between the characters and the cherry orchard and the symbolisms of the cherry orchard, I hope to provide one possible explanation for the mysterious category “comedy.” By portraying Lyubov as an impoverished noble and Lopakhin as the rich peasant and adding a vast yet empty orchard in between them, Chekov seems to suggest that it is the cherry orchard, surprisingly, not the money, that is the real separator between upper and lower classes.
For the characters in the play, belonging to the upper class means something more than having money. The story starts with the Lyubov family having already lost most of their wealth. In fact, the family owes money. From the economic perspective, the Lyubov family is probably the same with all the other “peasants” in the town. However, Lopakhin, the businessman, a “muzhik,” as he calls himself, who has more money than the Lyubov family does, treats the family with extreme admiration and respect. When Lyubov and her families come back from Paris, Lopakhin comes to the orchard “specially to meet them” (283). While he is waiting for their arrival, he expresses his eagerness to welcome the family back by constantly inquiring the time and claiming excitingly several times that he hears them coming back – “How late is the train? Two hours, at least” (283). “They are coming, really. Let’s go and meet them” (285). Lopakhin also draws a clear and firm line between his identity as a person from lower class and Lyubov’s upper class identity, choosing to ignore Lyubov’s impoverished living situation at the time. He says, “I am a muzhik through and through,” yet he has the same certainty when he talks about Lyubov’s social status – “You are still just as splendid” (290). The phrase “just as splendid” directly refers to the time when Lyubov, as the refined lady from the upper class, treats him, a “muzhik,” with extreme tenderness and care. At least for Lopakhin, money is not the determining factor in recognizing Lyubov’s family’s high social status. Although some may argue that Lyubov’s repetitive actions of giving money to the poor show some sorts of relationship between money and the upper class identity, it is the habit of giving rather than the actual money given that is the matter we should concern. Lyubov is borrowing others’ money to satisfy her lavishing giving habit. Rather than an extreme generous offer of kindness, the giving habit is an action that distinguishes Lyubov from the poor, the peasants, and which in turn, reinforces her higher social status. Further, since Lyubov has no money for charity, she is merely using the act of giving money as justification of her belief in her upper class identity. The irrelevance of money both in Lopakhin’s admiration and Lyubov’s charity behaviors suggests that there is something else than money that separates Lyubov from Lopakhin, and consequently, the upper and lower class.
Although the cherry orchard hardly brings the family any economic benefit, Lyubov still desperately holds onto the orchard to justify her upper class identity by employing her past memory related the orchard. The cherry orchard is mostly ornamental when Lyubov comes back from Paris, for “it only bears fruit every other year, and even then you don't know what to do with them; nobody buys any” and as Lopakhin says, “the only remarkable thing about the orchard is that it's very big” (292). However, aware of her orchard’s lack of productivity, Lyubov still attaches herself to it. Coming back from Paris, Lyubov’s shouts out her joy in seeing the orchard again – “I used to look at the orchard from here, happiness woke up with me every morning, and the orchard was just like this, nothing has changed ” (296). She regards the cherry orchard as the place her soul belongs, her home – “I slept here when I was a little girl and now I feel like a little girl again” (286). In both comments, Lyubov’s reference to her past childhood is obvious – she wants to go back to the time when there is no doubt on her being the owner of her still fruitful orchard. These retreats into the past can be understood as a method of coping with the cruel present, which puts her into destitution and threatens her ownership over the orchard. This ownership, as later Lyubov herself suggests, turns out to be more than a relationship between her and her orchard. When Trofimov reminds her of the inevitability of losing the orchard, Lyubov’s past memories turn into a reassurance of her ownership and this ownership is clearly her upper class identity – “I was born here, my father and mother lived here, my grandfather too, I love this house. I couldn't understand my life without that cherry orchard” (323). In a word, Lyubov holds on to the cherry orchard to preserve her upper class identity.
For Lyubov, agreeing to sell her cherry orchard for money means agreeing to lower her social status to the same level as normal, “vulgar” peasants. In fact, Lyubov is not at all in a hopeless economic situation, she has the option all through the play to follow Lopakhin’s suggestions – leasing out the cherry orchard, cutting down the trees, and building dachas to pay back all her debts and regaining her luxurious life. However, knowing the cherry orchard is destined to be lost and having the option of selling it to save her from destitution, Lyubov refuses to sell it and laughs at the “vulgarity” of Lopakhin’s suggestion. When Lopakhin finally calls her frivolous and shouts out his anger and desperation, Lyubov still laughs at the worldliness of changing the orchard into dachas. Since the cherry orchard is the only asset the family have, it may seem reasonable for the Lyubov to desperately keep the orchard due to emotional attachments. However, Lyubov’s teasing “no” indicates something more than a simple refusal of selling, it is also a refusal to be “vulgar.” The word “vulgar” clearly relates to a sense of aloofness resulted from the upper class identity Lyubov has. Instead of refusing to lose the orchard, Lyubov is refusing to become the same with all other people in the town. In other words, Lyubov is refusing to be a normal peasant. She refuses to actively let go of her belief in her upper class identity, regardless of the fact of her being poor. We can see that, to this point, for Lyubov, cherry orchard does not need to have economical value at all. As long as she is still the owner of the cherry orchard, she can always justify her poverty by rejecting “vulgarity.” The thing that stands between the lower class and the upper class, between the normal and the superior, is not necessarily money, but the belief in upper class identity that the orchard is able to offer Lyubov.
While for Lyubov, selling the orchard means losing faith in her upper class identity, for Lopakhin, buying the cherry orchard marks the sudden acquiring of upper class identity. While Lyubov experiences an extreme emptiness and sadness after losing the orchard, Lopakhin, the new owner of the orchard, a person from lower class, experiences a sudden uplift in social class and has a dramatic change in his own manner. When the cherry orchard is finally sold to Lopakhin, the former owner Lyubov experiences a mental breakdown while the new owner Lopakhin’s experiences a hysterical happiness. He shouts out uncontrollably – “my God, Lord above, the cherry orchard is mine,” he also showed his upward mobility in social status nakedly, – “I have bought the estate where my grandfather and father were slaves, where they weren’t even allowed into the kitchen. Their beaten, barely literate Yermolay, who used to run about in winter barefoot, see that same Yermolay buy the estate, the fairest thing on earth” (330). The ownership of the cherry orchard immediately lifts him to the upper class. As a person now belongs to the upper class, Lopakhin learns the behaviors fast to fit into his new identity. Lopakhin is a businessman, an occupation that tends to be very sensitive on money, but as the new owner of the orchard, he offers, for the first time, a loan to Trofimov – “If you need it, take some money from me for the journey” (335). His action of generosity reminds us of Lyubov’s immoderate philanthropy. Lopakhin’s actions give the readers a sudden sense of displacement – is this Lyubov or Lopakhin?
Lyubov’s refusal to sell the orchard represents her refusal to be normal and her refusal to stop believing in her upper class identity; Lopakhin’s sudden possession of orchard finally gives him the confidence to act like a person from upper class. The difference between upper class and lower class is portrayed not as the huge amount of money as most people think, but as a decaying orchard, representing the Lyubov’s belief in her upper class identity. The whole play thus takes on a less tragic tone and implicitly shows the ridiculousness of characters’ perception of classes.

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