Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard in which he chose to focus on the deepest desires and fears of his characters while Henrik Ibsen, considered to be the father of modern drama wrote Ghosts in which he explored and exposed the harsh reality that lay behind the many facades donned by his characters.
Both Chekhov and Ibsen spoke the ‘unspoken’ in their literary works. Through their characters, they explored many subjects that were considered taboo in their day. Many of the actions and reactions of the characters that inhabit their plays are based on the conditions of life at the time.
The central conflict of The Cherry Orchard revolves around Madame Ranevsky’s stubborn refusal to accept the merchant Lopakhin’s plan to save their heavily mortgaged estate by sacrificing their beloved cherry orchard. Ibsen’s Ghosts explores the consequences of building ‘ivory castles in moral ruins’. Helen Alving lives a lie as she hides the evils of her marriage behind a veneer of moral respectability.
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Both Madame Ranevsky and Helen Alving behave in a similar way when faced with difficult situations. Their reaction to problematic events is marked by a withdrawal into illusionary worlds that are far removed from the realities of their actual lives. Illusion and self-deception are key elements that characterize the reactions of Madame Ranevsky and Helen Alving. However, Illusion is a stronger force than reality in their lives. In both these plays, the chief protagonists react to events and situations by using the force of illusions to hold their families together only to find that eventually the very fabric of their illusions have been torn apart by reality.
In Ibsen’s Ghosts, illusion and reality are set into a conflict within the story. Helen Alving’s marriage is blighted by infidelity and abuse. However, her reaction to this is to retreat into an illusory world in which she does not need to face reality. She maintains an illusion of a perfect marriage. Mrs. Alving, obsessed with keeping up appearances, tries to protect her late husband’s reputation to shield her son from the truth about Mr. Alving. However, she not only ends up living a lie and building a memorial to her husband’s false reputation, but she also ruins the lives of Oswald and Regina.
The key factor that marks Helen Alving’s reactions to difficult situations is to turn her back on reality and live a life that is in essence a lie. Although she puts up with her husband’s depravity, she sends away their seven year old son, Oswald, in the hope of saving him from his dead father’s decadence. Maintaining the illusion of a happy marriage to a noble man, she doesn’t want anyone to doubt that he was a good and honorable man even after his death. As she says, “I had always before me the fear that it was impossible that the truth should not come out and be believed. That is why the Orphanage is to exist, to silence all rumours and clear away all doubt.”  Mrs. Alving does this to protect the children from the sin that marks their family’s history. Ultimately, when Mrs. Alving is faced with the incestuous relationship between Oswald and Regina, she has no choice but to finally face the reality she was trying to escape from. She discloses the harsh truths she had concealed to protect the children. Faced with reality at the end of the play, Mrs. Alving bitterly regrets the lies on which she has built her life. As she confesses to the priest Manders, “Yes, I was always swayed by duty and consideration for others; that was why I lied to my son, year in and year out. Oh, what a coward I have been.”  Mrs. Alving tries to protect Oswald from truths that have consequences on his life, as he has got syphilis from his father.
Like Helen Alving, Madame Ranevsky in The Cherry Orchard also inhabits an illusionary world of her own creation. Both react to the changing situations in their lives by staying cocooned in a world of illusions. Like Helen Alving, Madame Ranevsky too lacks the ability to perceive the truth of her situation. Both their reactions are marked by a tendency to shun reality – Helen Alving shuns the reality of her relationship with her husband while Madame Ranevsky shuns the reality of her financial situation. She along with her family returns to the family’s estate which includes an extremely large and renowned cherry orchard. Just prior to its auction, Lopakhin suggests and wishes to implement a plan to save the estate by paying the mortgage. However, Madame Ranevsky refuses as this will mean that the cherry orchard will need to be destroyed. For her, the orchard has become a symbol of her youth and childhood and she clings to these symbols of the past instead of living in and facing the reality of her present situation.
Throughout the play, Lophakin tries to make Madame Ranevsky focus on the estate so that they can find a solution to her financial problems. However, Madame Ranevsky constantly dwells in the past. Instead of trying to find a solution to her problem, she acts as if there is no problem on hand. Her energies which should have been focused on preserving the estate are spent on holding a party instead.
This shows that Madame Ranevsky is totally out of touch with reality and is very irresponsible when it comes to financial matters. She spends her money without giving a thought to the consequences of her actions. Madame Ranevsky lives a lavish lifestyle when in reality she hasn’t a dime to spare. She throws parties and hires orchestras she knows she cannot pay for. It is this type of behavior that put Madame Ranevsky deep into debt and her estate at risk.
Madame Ranevsky’s refusal to accept the truth about her situation in life eventually leads to her downfall. At the end of the play, the estate is sold and the family leaves even as the cherry orchard is being cut down. Madame Ranevsky’s refusal to tackle problems facing her estate and family mean that she eventually loses almost everything.
Even at the end of the play it is not certain if she has completely realized the seriousness of her situation. While Helen Alving in Ghosts is forced to confront reality eventually, Madame Ranevsky remains cocooned in her illusions returning to Paris and to her lover who had treated her so badly in the past. Mrs. Alving on the other hand is eventually compelled to recognize the Ghosts from her past that have prevented her from living just for the joy of life.
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On seeing the reactions of Mrs. Alving and Madame Ranevsky to the changing situations in their lives, one would realise that many of their actions and behaviors are spurred by the dictates of society. Helen Alving’s self-deceit is the result of the constraints imposed by the social structure of the time. Mrs. Alving’s middle class upbringing forces her to conform to certain pre-defined ideals. These ideals compel her to deceive others around her, and, most importantly, force her to deceive herself. One can see here that the upper and middle classes were very concerned with the issue of reputation. Unlike today, when a divorce is socially accepted, in the past, people involved in such scandals were often shunned by society.
Like Helen Alving, many of Madame Ranevsky’s actions and reactions also spring from social compulsions. She is a victim of social change. Due to this, former serfs gained wealth and status in society. On the other hand, the aristocratic class was impoverished. They could not tend their estates as they could no longer exploit the serfs for cheap labor. Society was still reverberating with the effect of these social reforms when Chekhov wrote forty years after the mass emancipation. Madame Ranevsky’s inability to tackle problems related to her estate and family mean that she loses almost everything. Her fate can be seen as a telling comment on the fading aristocracy who are unwilling to adapt to the changes in Russia
Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard portrays the social conflict present at the turn of the century in Russia. Many of Madame Ranevsky’s reactions are the result of her social background. She conforms to society’s expectations of how the aristocratic class behaves and cannot change or adapt to changing traditional values.
In the plays, The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov and Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, the protagonists’ reactions to changing situations are marked by a combination of illusion and reality and this is responsible for shaping the plot of the respective stories. The ability of the characters to reject or accept illusions, along with the social motifs and compulsions that motivate their decision, leads to their individual downfall.
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