Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” and social system change

This is an attempt to apply social systems theory to literature.

Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, his last play, which opened in Moscow in 1904, offers a glimpse into the transition from a society differentiated by inherited social rank to one based on functional differentiation. It also shows the difficulty of processing social change as information when a system isn’t equipped to do it.

The family’s estate is about to go up for auction to pay the mortgage, and the businessman Lopakhin advises them to lease some of their land, including their beloved cherry orchard, so that it can be divided up into summer villas for the new rich. Of course, the widow landowner Liubov Andryeevna won’t consider this option, and she and her ridiculous brother just propose borrowing more money and praying to God for help.  In the end, the estate is sold to the son of a former serf and the cherry orchard is cut down.

In Act 1, Lopakhin says

 Up to just recently there were only gentry and peasants living in the country, but now there are all these summer residents. All the towns, even quite small ones, are surrounded with villas. And probably in the course of the next twenty years or so, these people will multiply tremendously. At present they merely drink tea on the verandah, but they might start cultivating their plots of land, and then your cherry orchard would be gay with life and wealth and luxury. . . .

Gayev, the widow’s brother, cuts him off with

What nonsense!

Before going off to bed, the following exchange takes place:

LOPAKHIN: If you think over this question of the country villas and come to a decision, let me know, and I’ll get you a loan of fifty thousand or more. Think it over seriously.

VARIA [crossly]: Will you ever go away?

LOPAKHIN: I’m going, I’m going. [Goes out.]

GAYEV: What a boor! I beg your pardon. . . Varia’s going to marry him, he’s Varia’s precious fiancée.

In Act 2, the following exchange takes place:

LOPAKHIN: I keep telling you. Every day I tell you the same thing. You must lease the cherry orchard and the land for villas, and you must do it now, as soon as possible. The auction is going to held almost at once. Please do try to understand! Once you definitely decide to have the villas, you’ll be able to borrow as much money as you like, and then you’ll be out of the wood.

LIUBOV ANDRYEEVNA: Villas and summer visitors! Forgive me, but it’s so vulgar.

GAYEV: I absolutely agree with you.

In terms of systems theory, when the economy differentiates as a function system, aristocratic privilege is lost.  The aristocrats cannot even process as information what is happening around them. They have no way of making sense of it. All they have left is nostalgia. Praying to God and complaining about the loose morals and vulgarity of business people doesn’t do any good.

Gayev states that their rich Countess aunt is unlikely to loan them money because Liubov married a solicitor rather than a nobleman, and he associates this fact with loose morals. In the following, Varia, who is Liubov’s adopted 24-year-old adopted daughter, turns to divine help, and Gayev talks about morality.

VARIA [weeping]: If only God would help us.

GAYEV: Do stop blubbering! The Countess is very rich, but she doesn’t like us . . . First, because my sister married a solicitor, and not a nobleman. . .  She married a man who wasn’t of noble birth . . . and then you can’t say her behaviour’s been exactly virtuous. She’s a good, kind, lovable person, and I’m very fond of her, but whatever extenuating circumstances you may think of, you must admit that she’s a bit easy-going morally. You can sense it in every movement . . .

But the main force that is disrupting their lives is the economy, not morals. It’s not just the economy, however. Society in general has become more complex. Politics, education, mass media, and science also added complexity to 1904 Russia. The only response of someone like Gayev is nostalgia and daydreaming.



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