The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters

The importance of family is inherently present in all Chekhov’s plays. A renowned dramatist and short story writer, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov considers family an essential part of the society, which either develops or decays due to the well-being or breakdown of these smaller units. At the turn of the twentieth century, Russia was in the state of turmoil and anticipated the major social and political transformations. These changes found reflection in the worldviews and stories of the noble families. Two Chekhov’s plays, The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters, demonstrate such transformations in the example of the life of two noble families in decay. Although researchers mostly concentrate on other themes, family issues are inherently present in almost all discussions concerning Chekhov’s plays.

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Chekhov elaborately shows changes that occur in the lives of the main characters with the course of time. They get frustrated with either the family life or profession, either change their life goals (The Cherry Orchard) or persist with their dreams and ambitions (Three Sisters). Regardless whether they admit or reject the importance of family, they all are inherently dependent on it. The three sisters depend on their brother at the very least, while Lyubov Andreievna seems to be free from any obligations at all. However, even she is obsessed with the visions from the past and tied to the family issues by the cherry orchard, which is the symbol of her childhood and her happy life in the family of her parents. Various researchers considered family themes and symbols in The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters as central since the family was in the focus of action. Moreover, they underlined the importance of family as the foundation of the aristocratic society, which was in decay at that time.

The drama master fills his plays with true-to-life characters, which strive to live and love but have to overcome various obstacles. The abundance of these hindrances in common life turns the characters to their families. Failing marriages, the loss of the life sense, paternalistic male figures in the then Russian society, intelligent stupidity, which prevents the characters from prosperity in all senses, - Chekhov uses these symbols to underline the importance of families that can be either supporting or frustrating social phenomena and demonstrates this importance through the fates of his characters.

Marriage in Chekhov’s Plays

Family issues play an essential role in Chekhov’s plays. The characters in Three Sisters feel trapped in their routine life. For the majority of them, marriage is a cage, but they do nothing to solve that issue. For Masha, marriage is opposed to happy childhood in the parental family. This symbolic parallel continues in The Cherry Orchard. Lyubov Andreievna was happy in her childhood but her marriage failed and she obviously rejected the canons of this social institution.

Olga, Natasha, and Irina are three sisters from a family of the gentry. Although the title of the play suggests that they are the major characters, Chekhov puts Andrey Prozorov first in the dramatis personae. The sisters are explained in relation to him. It may be considered a literary device, which identifies the role of women in the social and family life of that time. Natasha who precedes the sisters in the list of characters is the symbol of the lack of unity between the brother and sisters. Thus, the marriage continues the family breakdown, which has started with the death of the father.

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The family breakdown continues with the entrance of social orphans to the family. Vershinin loves one of the sisters, Masha, who is married to a gymnasium teacher. Although she used to love and admire her husband when she was 18, with the course of time she realized his weaknesses. Masha cannot take him seriously now when she sees his foolishness and shallowness. Through this family and the family of Andrey and Natasha, Chekhov demonstrates the transformation of feelings, which happens with time. While the characters all love each other at the beginning of their relationships, the understanding of weaknesses arises eventually, and they start looking for other people to love. Natasha turns to her husband’s boss and reticently brings him to the family as her lover. The sisters desperately long to return to Moscow, where they used to live in their childhood. However, as the time passes, they only become deeper immersed into the dull life they despise.

Family relations play a crucial role in the sisters’ staying. Andrey married and had two children. In the absence of Masha’s and Irina’s husbands, he is the central person, on whom they rely in their dreams about moving to Moscow. However, the man experiences his personal drama of disillusion. To him, his wife, Natasha seemed to be so extraordinary, interesting, and intelligent before they married. The more he loved her then, the greater was his disappointment after the marriage. Andrey sinks into gambling, which eventually leads to his end as an honest family man. Lyubov Andreievna from The Cherry Orchard also seems to be disillusioned with the family life, and her social behavior is inappropriate. The cherry orchard is the only illusion she strive to keep. However, just like Andrey, Lyubov Andreievna has to make a tough choice and sell her legacy. Therefore, in both plays, the family failure led to the loss of material possessions of the characters.

Chekhov shows that having lost their property, the Prozorov family is deprived of its spiritual wealth, as well. When the realization of a complete loss comes at the end of the play, the sisters still hope for the revival of the old times. However, their lives have changed significantly: Andrey works as a clerk; Olga lives in the local school in a self-imposed exile initiated by Natasha; Masha bids farewell to Vershinin, while Irina loses her fianc?e Tuzenbakh forever. As Trepanier emphasizes, “The family has been doubly dispossessed of their material and spiritual wealth. The collapse of the Prozorov’s household also symbolizes the end to the aristocratic world” (18). Consequently, the message communicated by Chekhov is fundamental: family is the social institution, which defines either the development or decay of the society. Thus, the family and society are mutually interdependent in the fates of characters, with the male figures remaining traditionally central.

Paternalistic Perspective

The situation with the three sisters can be even seen as humoristic to a certain extent since the time passes, and they are obsessed with the vision of Moscow, but their dream remains distant and unachievable throughout the years. Nowadays, this situation is virtually impossible and unclear for people, who change their lives and move freely around the world. However, social conditions and obstacles to young women in Russia at the turn of the XX century should be taken into consideration in this analysis. Families mostly followed a paternalistic approach, which can be seen in the sisters’ attitude to their brother, on whom they put high hopes. With the absence of the father, the brother takes the full responsibility for the family. The action in the play starts a year after the father’s death, and this date helps in understanding the paternalistic atmosphere in the family. The strict father restrained the sisters’ desires and aspirations and significantly limited their independence. Thus, now, they are full of dreams about the future life in the city they love. However, the paternalistic character of the brother, on whom the sisters rely, restrains them again; they realize their dependency on Andrey and frustration of their dreams. Nevertheless, even after years of suppression and neglect, their aspirations are alive, and the sisters promise each other that they would leave for Moscow at any cost.

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To emphasize the difference of the Prozorov family from their surroundings in the provincial town, the theatre producer Liang (2012) made the family members of mixed Asian and other ethnic background. This method allowed the producer to emphasize the distinction of the sisters suffering from limitations of the provincial town and their subordinance to their brother. Moreover, this strategy added to the concept of their unity in the family. Although the article by Liang concentrates more on the issues of staging the play, she admits the importance of family issues in explaining the characters’ personalities and choices.

The Cherry Orchard has a paternalistic figure of the merchant Lopakhin who offers Lyubov Andreievna to sell the cherry orchard in order to solve her financial problems. However, she is in no haste to agree. The family and childhood are an umbrella, which covers children from the travails of the world. While recollecting the happy days of her childhood, which she spent in this house surrounded by the cherry orchard with both parents, she hesitates about selling the property. This emotionalism of the characters is sometimes referred to as the intelligent stupidity.

The Concept of Intelligent Stupidity

The Russian noble society was in the state of moral decay at the end of the nineteenth century. Chekhov reflects this decadence in the slow and gradual family breakdown, which results from the intelligent stupidity. “Intelligent stupidity is distinguished by its claims to insights beyond its ability, the privileging of emotions over reason, and the ability to produce convincing rationalizations to justify its viewpoints” (Trepanier 15). According to Trepanier, this type of stupidity results in social problems like in the Prozorov family. Various characters have certain signs of intelligent stupidity. The sisters cannot overcome their weaknesses and focus on their dream. Those times required women to be extremely ambitious and strong-willed to achieve their aims despite various social and life obstacles. As the play end shows, they promise to overcome all hindrances but their life moves in a completely different direction.

The concept of the intelligent stupidity partially applies to their life situation and implies helplessness under the real-world circumstances. They rely on their brother because men tended to have greater social ambitions and possibilities for their realization, but Andrey turns out to be as intelligently stupid and weak as his sisters are. They are socially and morally disoriented, and the only person in the family who knows what should be done is Natasha. Although she can be referred to as an intelligently stupid person, she is not ambivalent on any family issue. She knows how her husband should live, where his sisters should sleep, and what career Olga has to pursue. Natasha does not devour her heart but lives as she believes to be right. Thus, despite her vulgarity and emotionalism, which are the signs of the intelligent stupidity, she is a rational person. Natasha’s ambitions are satisfied due to the nature of these simple mundane ambitions and her practical personality. Therefore, the intelligent stupidity has contributed essentially to the family breakdown. This decay was gradual and persistent, and happened in two dimensions. One is the sisters’ stupidity expressed in their weakness, moral disorientation, and the lack of will. The other is Natasha’s stupidity that managed to create a vulgar atmosphere in the house and neglected the concepts of sympathy, beauty, and nobility.

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Trepanier (2011) mentions the western vision of two dimensions in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, “Hope for the future and despair of the present” (p.14). This idea perfectly characterizes the concept of marriage in the play. Neither married character in the drama is happy. They all suffer from mistakes of the youth or poor judgment. The only person, whose feelings and emotions are not evident, thus, difficult to analyze, is Natasha, Andrey’s wife. Due to the vulgar nature of her character and her actions, she does not feel any remorse or sorrow. She lives as she considers right. Her mundane approach to living makes her the only person in the play who is not frustrated because of failed ideals. Her travails are routine and manageable. The woman needs a room for her children, and she gets it after persuading the sisters to crowd together in one room. She does not want to see an old nanny in the house, and she finds the way to get rid of her.

Trepanier (2011) offers a detailed analysis of the play, Three Sisters, and introduces an unexpected in this relation concept of the intelligent stupidity. According to the researcher, this kind of stupidity plays a crucial role in determining the characters’ view on all issues, including the importance of family to the characters. Trepanier supports his assumptions with relevant although not recent resources. His view of the role of the family through the prism of practical intelligence and stupidity is accurate.

Concepts of the Family and Orphanage in Chekhov’s Plays

The theme of orphanage is pervasive in Chekhov’s works. Olga, Natasha, and Irina are orphans, while Anya from The Cherry Orchard is a half-orphan and has no father. Although she has a mother, the latter can hardly be considered an adequate parent. In line, her adopted sister, Varya, is an orphan as well. The symbol of orphanage is widely used by Chekhov in order to emphasize the loneliness of every person. With this idea in mind, the concept of orphanage can be regarded not only from the family perspective but also from the social point of view.

Solyony and Protopopov are the symbolic orphans in The Three Sisters, who do not have their family support in the play but want to enter the life of the Prozorovs. They “intrude upon the lives of this family to weave, repetitively and inexorably, a web of disaster” (Kane 64). The inherent attitude to the characters in each play is that of family members or orphans who try to find their place in the family either as a lover or a family friend, for example. Thus, Solyony, Protopopov, and Chebutykin from The Three Sisters and Lopakhin, Yepikhodov from The Cherry Orchard can be regarded as implied orphans in the families, which they try to enter.

Obviously, Kane (1984) considers family issues central to Chekhov’s symbolism. Kane provides a complex analysis of the characters through their relation to family issues. Although the source is not recent, it is still relevant, and can be considered a trustworthy tool for the analysis of the modern drama characters.

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Chekhov’s characters live their lives according to the own family perspective. Failing marriages, paternalistic perspective, loss of the sense of life, and intelligent stupidity are the methods and symbols applied by Chekhov to show the importance of families in the life of his characters and of the society. With the course of time, the characters in the plays change their views on either the family life or work, either insist on their ambitions (Three Sisters) or succumb to the circumstances (The Cherry Orchard).

Scholars emphasize the symbolic importance of family in Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, which they consider the basis of the noble society of those times. While in Three Sisters, the characters are closely tied by family relations, in The Cherry Orchard, these ties are mostly nominal. Nevertheless, the symbol of family persists in the play and is more important than personal strengths and weaknesses of the characters. The intelligent stupidity and social paternalistic restraints make the central families in both plays lose their either tangible or spiritual wealth.

Major themes raised in these pieces include the issues of marriage, orphanage, paternalistic perspective, and the concept of intelligent stupidity, which prevent Chekhov’s characters from being happy and satisfied with their lives. Both plays are essentially pessimistic and only some aspects allow stating that there is some hope for the future. Family is the central concept in these Chekhov’s plays, which in this way or another emphasize the mutual connection of the family life and social circumstances.

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