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Chekhov's Lopakhin: A Serf Unbound

By Rick Brown

     Drama is a delicate enterprise. The balance of character, plot, and fluid progress is a subtle one, and none but a small few can truly be considered its masters. In the world of playwrights, there are few better examples of such a master than Anton Chekhov. A controversial writer, Chekhov built stories rich in nuance and highly reliant on character. One of his most famous plays, The Cherry Orchard, is perhaps the finest example of the author's finely hewn attention to the personality of the individual. There is little in the story that is not motivated by the will of the characters, and Chekhov utilizes the quirks, prejudices, and failings of each character to create a vivid, yet disquietingly ambiguous story of loss. The most complicated character in the play - and perhaps its most important - is Yermolay Lopakhin, an intelligent but troubled businessman from a line of common serfs. Indeed, Chekhov presents Lopakhin as a deeply insecure but well meaning character whose drive to escape the circumstances of his birth leads to his triumph and the Ranevskys' tragedy.
 
     Like many individuals in The Cherry Orchard, Lopakhin is a product of his youth, a troubled period which has left him with a deep-seated insecurity. That insecurity is one of class, as Lopakhin was born a peasant, the son of a common serf. Though a rather affluent man, he is acutely aware and occasionally bitter about the implications of his birth. As Chekhov reveals in the first scene of act one, Lopakhin sees himself as "a rich man now, rolling in money. […] But […] a plain peasant still" (709). Indeed, even one of the happiest moments of his life was colored by his peasant birth. As Lopakhin explains in rather frank, honest dialogue,
I remember when I was a lad of fifteen, my late father […] punched me in the face and made my nose bleed. […] Mrs. Ranevsky […] took me to the washstand […]. "Don't cry, little peasant," she said, "it won't matter by the time you're wed." Little peasant…It's quite true my father was a peasant, but here I am wearing a white waistcoat and brown shoes. A dirty peasant in a fashionable shop (Chekhov 709).
Lopakhin's monologue is telling. His recollection of the event is fond, but he dwells on Ranevsky's words. Though Chekhov does not reveal Lopakhin's age, one can guess from the context of the play that the man is probably in his early middle age. At such a point in his life, one would imagine that Lopakhin would have left such considerations behind, or at least moved past dwelling on them. Yet Lopakhin still deprecates himself with an uncommon ardor, stating later in the play, "Let's just admit that the life we lead is utterly stupid. […] My father was a peasant, an idiot. […] As a matter of fact, I'm just as big a blockhead and an idiot myself" (Chekhov 725). Clearly he has not moved on; his past is his future, and one imagines that he would remember his "inferior" social status even if others did not. As Peta Tait observes in her article "Performative Acts of Gendered Emotions and Bodies in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard," "Lopakhin measures and celebrates his success by his distance from his father's and grandfather's positions as serfs on the estate." As such, Lopakhin has become a pragmatic, driven (one might say almost obsessive) man, constantly striving to better himself economically, obviously to stave off his own feelings of inferiority as much as the insinuations of others. Though his inferiority complex has forced him to acquire formidable wealth, it will never be enough to placate his insecurities.
 
     Despite such considerations, Lopakhin is not a negative character; indeed, Chekhov actually portrays him as quite well meaning throughout the play. There is never a point in the play in which Lopakhin ever ceases to attempt to help the Ranevsky family, especially Mrs. Ranevsky, and it is his efforts to aid them that drive the story forward and remind the reader of the building tension concerning the oncoming auction. Throughout The Cherry Orchard, Lopakhin implores Mrs. Ranevsky to consider "a way out" of selling the orchard, reminding her that "it won't be only [the orchard] but [her] whole estate that will be sold at auction" if she takes no action (Chekhov 715). As the date creeps closer and closer, he actually begs her to take him up on his offer, making it clear that he is willing to help her with money and planning. Lopakhin betrays a true concern for Ranevsky throughout the play, revealing the good nature that lies beneath his self-loathing. Indeed, he actually displays a palpable, almost childlike love for Mrs. Ranevsky, and his feelings, tainted though they are with some of the more bitter memories of his peasant childhood, are quite genuine. It is actually that love that motivates his efforts to save the orchard throughout the play. As Ronald Bryden observes in his article "The Snark and the Orchard: A Polemical Afterword," "We know why Lopakhin loves [Ranevsky]: he tells us in the first lines of the play. […] In spite of all the transformations his life has undertaken since [the incident where Ranevsky wiped the blood from his face], he still remains emotionally arrested on that happiest day he can remember." As such, he is even more greatly pained by Mrs. Ranevsky's inaction, eventually exclaiming in frustration that "I shall burst into tears or scream or have a fit! I can't stand it. You've worn me out!" (Chekhov 724).
 
     Unfortunately for the Ranevskys, Lopakhin's patience and altruism are indeed worn out by the end of the play, and it is his pragmatic decision to purchase the orchard that serves as the emotional climax of the play for both parties. Throughout the play, Lopakhin wrestles with the conflicting motivations of his deep-seated class consciousness and good intentions towards the family, as purchasing the orchard would, if only for a time, assuage his feelings of social inferiority at the cost of the Ranevsky family. Lopakhin is simply exhausted by the end of the play, and his drive to escape his insecurity about his social status finally overwhelms his love for Mrs. Ranevsky. In the end, he eventually ends up buying the orchard for himself, and when Mrs. Ranevsky asks Lopakhin about the result of the auction, he bluntly declares that, "I bought it" (Chekhov 738). It is at this point that Chekhov unleashes Lopakhin's insecurities in full bloom, as the man's sense of disgust at the orchard and all it represents is finally revealed. Lopakhin states triumphantly that "I've bought the estate where my father and grandfather were slaves, where they weren't even allowed inside the kitchen" (Chekhov 738). In his moment of triumph over the orchard and the oppressing inferiority it inflicted upon him, he happily invites the others to "Come and watch Yermolay Lopakhin take an axe to the cherry orchard! Watch the trees come crashing down," oblivious to Mrs. Ranevsky as sits in her chair, "hunched up and crying bitterly" (Chekhov 738-739). In the end, Lopakhin's quest for material wealth brings him to a bittersweet triumph at the cost of his love for Mrs. Ranevsky.
 
     Indeed, it is Lopakhin and his good natured but deeply insecure quest for status that permeates and drives the end of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard towards its deeply emotional end. Lopakhin is an iconic character whose self loathing becomes, ironically, the source of his greatest drive and passion, financial betterment, and his complexity as a character rings bitterly true to life. His personality and his depth of emotion are testaments to Chekhov, a writer who articulated the most complex of emotions with a sense of effortlessness unmatched by almost all other playwrights. As the reader visualizes the destruction of the orchard in the last few lines of The Cherry Orchard, they cannot help but think of Lopakhin, his triumph, his loathing, and the artistic and dramatic mastery of the man who constructed him.
 

 
Works Cited
 

Bryden, Ronald. "The Snark and the Orchard: A Polemical Afterword." Modern Drama 43.2 (Summer 2000). InfoTrac OneFile. InfoTrac. 27 Mar. 2007.
 
Chekhov, Anton. The Cherry Orchard. The Bedford Anthology of World Literature: The Eighteenth Century, 1800-1900. Ed. Davis, Paul, et al. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003. 708-747.
 
Tait, Peta. "Performative Acts of Gendered Emotions and Bodies in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard." Modern Drama 43.1 (Spring 2000); 87. InfoTrac OneFile. InfoTrac. 27 Mar. 2007.
 

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