In Anton Chekhov’s 'The Cherry Orchard' we see the beginning of a process that happens often today: productive agricultural land being sold for the upraising of suburban homes, offices, factories, and the rest of it. This process is mostly looked upon either indifferently or as a positive good, but it is in fact a great evil.
The characters of 'The Cherry Orchard' help us understand some of the forces at work then and now in this act of beneficent Progress. The widowed Madame Lubov is the current owner of a large cherry orchard that has been in her family for generations. But through lack of thrift and the forgetting of her forebears’ wise farming practices, she has fallen deeply in debt. Her own incompetence in well-managing the orchard is matched by her brother Gaev; and her daughters Varya and Anya seem to have more interest in traveling than in staying on their ancestral land. The only one who remembers anything about the old ways is the agèd but loyal servant of the family, Fiers:
FIERS. In the old days, forty or fifty years back, they dried the cherries, soaked them and pickled them, and made jam of them. . .
FIERS. And then we'd send the dried cherries off in carts to
Moscow and . And money! And the dried cherries were soft, juicy, sweet, and nicely scented. . . They knew the way. . . . Kharkov
Yet no sooner has he begun to speak than Gaev foolishly admonishes him, ‘Be quiet Fiers.’ And Fiers himself admits he does not know how to do these things: ‘They’ve forgotten. Nobody remembers.’
So the door is left open for the merchant Lopakhin, who shares his ideas on how the family can pay its debts:
LOPAKHIN. Your estate is only thirteen miles from the town, the railway runs by, and if the cherry orchard and the land by the river are broken up into building lots and are then leased off for villas you'll get at least twenty-five thousand roubles a year profit out of it.
. . .
LOPAKHIN. You will get twenty-five roubles a year for each dessiatin from the leaseholders at the very least, and if you advertise now I'm willing to bet that you won't have a vacant plot left by the autumn; they'll all go. In a word, you're saved. I congratulate you. Only, of course, you'll have to put things straight, and clean up. . . . For instance, you'll have to pull down all the old buildings, this house, which isn't any use to anybody now, and cut down the old cherry orchard. . .
Lubov and Gaev offer a weak protest, mentioning that the cherry orchard is a well-known landmark in the province - but little else.
When they cannot find sufficient money to pay their bills, an auction is called to settle them. Lopakhin swoops in, buys the land, and begins to follow through with his plan only a couple of months later. The family is reduced to a rootless, dispossessed existence, each going his separate way: Lubov back to an erstwhile lover in Paris who had robbed her; Gaev, to a bureaucrat’s career of boredom in a bank; Varya, 50 miles away to be a housekeeper; and Anya, off to school and then to a job as a wage-slave. All that is left to be done in the end is to listen to the sound of the axes falling against the cherry trees - hewing, splintering, devouring - and of Fiers lying alone in the abandoned family home, forgotten by everyone, the symbol of a better way of living that is all too easily lost.
Though Lubov and the others (who represent the typical farming family of today) shed many tears over the loss of their orchard, it was their lack of imagination and other virtues (prudence, temperance, and fortitude) that led them to their doom at the hands of Lopakhin (the representative of the modern, distant, urban financier class that owns and ‘develops’ so much of our land). And here are we, in the South, a century down the road, experiencing all that was described by Chekhov but to an even higher degree: industrialisation, estrangement from the soil, wage-slavery, debt, centralisation, etc. All of which is deadly to what remains of our Southern way of living - devotion to the extended family, jealousy of local authority, neighbourliness, hierarchy, Christianity, and such like.
We are indeed far down the road leading toward cultural oblivion; the Sun in his chariot is racing toward Ocean. This does not mean that Dawn will not eventually rise, radiant and rose-red, as she always has. Nevertheless, we have plunged ourselves needlessly into the thick darkness of Night’s embrace.
And that darkness will be so much the worse if we go on believing our local and national politicians and other leaders who claim they can clear the gloom and murk by adding to their causes: building larger and more complex networks of highways, factories, shopping centres, and utilitarian public schools that eat away at the social fabric passed down to us from our forefathers.
Chekhov, Anton. ‘The Cherry Orchard.’ Plays. 2nd series. tr. Julius West.
: Scribner’s, 1917. Accessed 9 May 2012 from http://www.ibiblio.org/eldritch/ac/chorch.htm . New York