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Anton Chekhov’s play “The Cherry Orchard” is labeled a comedy, however, it has a handful of meaningful lessons that can be learned from the characters featured in the play. These character’s debacles and actions act almost as a social commentary for the industrial era in which the play was written. One of the characters that best represent this idea is the maid Dunyasha. Dunyasha is a maid with a background of poverty but her job has her constantly surrounded by the lives of the “wealthy” Raynevskaya family. She has gotten so use to being around “their lifestyle” (Chekhov 864) that she subconsciously attempts to live as they do. However, whenever she outwardly acts as a higher class individual, there is always a person who is actually of the upper class to put Dunyasha in her place. With her, Lopakhin is also treated differently due to his poor past despite rising to the middle class. The idea of never being able to rise above the class a person is born into was prominent during the early industrial era however this idea would soon change with the introduction of the middle class. Both of these ideas are seen throughout the play and prove to be one of the most prominent lessons that Chekhov wished to teach the audience.
It is not long after we are first introduced to Dunyasha that it becomes apparent that she is of the lower class and has no chance to rise above it. As Dunyasha and Lopakhin (a wealthy business man) anxiously wait for the arrival of the Ranyevskaya family, Lopakhin takes notice of Dunyasha’s attire which is not her normal lower class attire. He criticizes her by saying that she is “getting to full of herself” (851) and stresses that she needs to “remember who [she is]” (851). The irony behind this is that similarly to Dunyasha, Lopakhin also comes from a poor background. Even though he has since risen to become a wealthy and successful business man of the upper middle class, he seems to have forgotten who he use to be as if he were never a poor boy who simply wished to live a more prosperous life. You would think that Lopakhin would have sympathy for Dunyasha but quite the opposite seems to be true. It is this type of selfishness that made the divide between the upper class and the lower class as large as it was back in that time.
Despite being treated as a subordinate, Dunyasha still fights to be seen as more than just a maid. It is for that reason that she does not act like a typical maid. She is always involved in the conversations around her no matter the social status of the group. When Dunyasha is reunited with Anya she almost fights to make her life seem interesting and that it should be of importance to Anya. While talking to Anya, Dunyasha addresses her as if she did not work for her family. She claims that she “can’t wait another minute” (852) to describe all that has happened in her life since Anya’s absence. To this, Anya replies “now what?” (852) and the stage directions make it obvious that Anya has no interest in Dunyasha’s life and yet she keeps on talking as if she is a friend of equal status to Anya. Dunyasha’s naivety to her situation as a lower class individual represents the youth’s lack of distinction between classes and how she simply wishes to live as her employers do.
Dunyasha is not the only character that fights to be recognized as an equal to the Ranyevskaya’s. Lopakhin has known the Rayevskaya family since his father worked as a serf on the family property. Despite currently being successful and being the only person attempting to save the family from debt, some members of the family still see Lopakhin as “crude” (855). The family seems to live in the past with how they treat people and how they act. Despite being in debit, the family still lives as if “money grows on trees” (860) which causes them to act the way they do. The mother gives out “two hundred and forty rubles” (860) despite having no money while her brother is always the first to ask whose “wearing the cheap cologne” (855). Perhaps if they gave up their old lives they would be able to prosper. Lopakhin’s ability to not live in the past is what gives him the edge in becoming the family’s savior. He is willing to give up the cherry tree orchard to preserve the future while the family is not as willing because they want to preserve the past.
Ultimately, the motif of living in the past is what causes the divide between the characters social standings. The reason why the mother is reluctant to sell her property was partly due to the fact that it would be occupied by middle class families. The idea of the “middle class” was a new concept and was not greatly accepted by the posh upper class. To the lower class it was an opportunity to rise above poverty. The middle class would appeal to Dunyasha and move her closer in social status to the family that she attempts to mimic. In the end the interaction between the different social classes in the play represented the social changes that were evident with the arrival of industrialization. Anton Chekhov helps shed light on the social discrimination between the classes with the treatment of Dunyasha and with the downfall of the wealthy family, predicts the change that was imminent in that time.
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