Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and social system change

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, or stratification, 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.

In the play, the family’s estate is about to go up for auction to pay the mortgage, and the businessman Lopakhin advises the family 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 be 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.

It’s interesting that Gayev never directly addresses Lopakhin. He talks about him but not to him. When Gayev speaks, he forms a closed social system (an interaction system or dyad) that excludes the vulgar businessman. What Lopakhin says does not count as information in this small, closed social system.

On another level of systems, when the economy differentiates itself as a function system, traditional aristocratic privilege is lost (though this doesn’t preclude the evolution of a new kind of social dominance).  Moreover, the nobility 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 (much like the average Trump supporter). Praying to God and complaining about the loose morals and vulgarity of people who work for a living 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 Gayev associates this marriage with loose or declining morals. Having a profession is frowned upon and given a moral interpretation. In the following, Varia, who is Liubov’s 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 . . .

The upper class, or those born into wealth, always presents those below them on the social ladder as immoral. They inevitably fall back on moral stereotypes, seeing the “other” as a lawless, often sexually depraved, mass. (Consider Trump‘s description of Mexicans coming into the US as drug dealers, criminals, rapists, etc.).

But the main force that is disrupting the life of the family in the Chekhov play is the economy, not changing morals. Changing morals are just a distracting side effect. It’s not just the economy, however. Russian society in general was becoming more complex. Politics, education, mass media, and science also added complexity to 1904 Russia, but the only response of someone like Gayev is nostalgia and daydreaming. 

Modern, functionally differentiated society is not held together by moral consensus, shared values, or shared goals. Modern society is far too complex for that. Instead, modern global society is “held together,” or reproduced from moment to moment, by a division of labor on a large scale. That is to say, post-eighteenth-century global society has divided the labor of society into operationally autonomous social systems known as the economy, the law, politics, education, science, art, mass media, and healthcare. Just as an organization or business operates based on a division of labor, global society has created its own division of labor. Moreover, this division of labor was never actually planned by anyone—it has emerged through evolution—and it’s beyond the control of human beings, organizations, or governments.

Some thoughts on technology . . . We see the connection between social change and technological change from the first line of The Cherry Orchard, when the train and time are mentioned: 

LOPAKHIN. The train’s arrived, thank God. What’s the time?

There was increasing foreign investment in late 19th-century Russia. In The Cherry Orchard, foreign investment in Russia is associated with the train. Pischin, a landowner whose name translates as squeaker, reports on an encounter with Englishmen:

PISCHIN. Stop… it’s hot…. A most unexpected thing happened. Some Englishmen came along and found some white clay on my land…. [To LUBOV ANDREYEVNA] And here’s four hundred for you… beautiful lady…. [Gives her money] Give you the rest later…. [Drinks water] Just now a young man in the train was saying that some great philosopher advises us all to jump off roofs. “Jump!” he says, and that’s all. [Astonished] To think of that, now! More water!

LOPAKHIN. Who were these Englishmen?

PISCHIN. I’ve leased off the land with the clay to them for twenty-four years…. Now, excuse me, I’ve no time…. I must run off…. I must go to Znoikov and to Kardamonov… I owe them all money…. [Drinks] Good-bye. I’ll come in on Thursday.

All sorts of disagreeable comments are also heard on the train. For example,

TROFIMOV. In the train an old woman called me a decayed gentleman.

A second important technology mentioned in Chekhov’s play is the telegraph, which is also linked to international influences:

VARYA. There are two telegrams for you, little mother. [Picks out a key and noisily unlocks an antique cupboard] Here they are.

LUBOV. They’re from Paris…. [Tears them up without reading them] I’ve done with Paris.

Chekhov’s play Three Sisters (1901) deals extensively with telegraphy.

International investment, which is essential to the modern economy, is another major factor. The noble family in The Cherry Orchard is challenged by all of these factors, and they cannot adequately process it all as information.

I keep returning to the connections between new technologies, particularly travel and communication technologies, and social change. The reason for this is that I am looking for factors other than changing values to account for social change.


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