Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” a controversial, Norwegian play focusing on a couple’s marriage has quite remarkable similarities and differences with Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” a captivating, Russian play about an aristocratic family and their inability to face change. While the first set the foundation for modern realism in drama, the second, 20 years later, presented a unique union of naturalism and symbolism.
Ambiguity has always lain around the genre of both plays though, because of the various emotions evoked in the audience throughout the two plays. Another striking similarity in the two plays lies in their disordered portrayal of the social power structures. In a society highly critical of women, Ibsen significantly empowered the central female character, Nora, while Chekhov, from a society highly critical of the serfs, significantly empowered the peasant character of Lopakhin. Close scrutiny and careful analysis of the two plays reveals Ibsen and Chekhov’s characterizations of Nora and Lopakhin, respectively to be social commentaries designed to provoke through contradictions of social structures.
Essentially, it is by developing Nora and Lopakhin’s characters realistically, by giving them human dimensions, that the playwrights first establish these characters’ strong rapport with the audience. Instead of the stereotypical, calm, weak female character of that time, Ibsen captures the female psyche, through various emotions that Nora displays. From the beginning of the play, Nora is depicted as having a child-like quality; the stage directions reveal her secretly “eat[ing] macaroons and wip[ing] her mouth” (Ibsen, p.2) like a child secretly eats candy, and her low register is replete with hyperbole: “we may be a wee but more reckless now, mayn’t we? Just a tiny wee bit!
You are going to have a big salary and earn lots and lots of money.” (Ibsen, p. 2) The repetition of “wee bit” and exaggeration of money as “lots and lots” shows her limited vocabulary while the short sentences indicate her lack of skill in language, just like a child. Her child-like aura though can be interpreted as adorable and thus may attract the audience to her. On the other hand, her child’s face constantly transforms into a deep seriousness. In the eyes of the audience therefore, Nora’s character gains much credibility. Under the pretext of wrapping Christmas packages, she “lock[s] [herself] up… writing every evening until late at night,” (Ibsen, p. 13) doing copyist work. Nora’s determination and hard work thus undoubtedly draws admiration from the audience. All in all, it is this combination of her serious and child-like qualities that makes Nora a multi-faceted character and thus a character that the audience can easily bond with.
Similarly, Lopakhin’s character also contradicts the common portrayals of merchantmen as “hard-hearted, [and] loud mouthed,” (Bloom, p. 71) as he is not only undoubtedly logical and intelligent but also artistic in ways. He contains an aura of a businessman as revealed through his language: “And it is safe to say that in another twenty years these people will multiply enormously. Now the summer resident only drinks tea on his porch, but it may well be that he’ll take to cultivating his acre, and then your cherry orchard will be a happy, rich, luxuriant -?” (Chekhov, p. 334). As evident, Lopakhin constantly quotes numbers, uses a business vocabulary and according to the stage directions, frequently “glanc[es] at his watch.” (Chekhov, p.333)
At the same time though, his personification and description of the cherry orchard as “happy, rich, luxuriant” also shows his artistic personality. He has, as Trofimov puts it, “a soul of an artist.” (Chekhov, p. 381) Further adding dimension to his character is the fact that he is comically inept, particularly around Varya. The line directions of a “pause” (Chekhov, p. 358), the misquotation of Shakespeare: “Aurelia, get thee to a nunnery…” (Chekhov, p. 359) and the ellipsis thereby, also further his awkward impression in front of Varya. Lopakhin is thus portrayed as neither the perfect, composed businessman nor a dim-witted fool; it is essentially the combination of his reasoning, artistic sensitivity and the comedy that he brings, that makes him a multi-dimensional character that the audience believe and even like.
It should be noted that both the characters have a binary half, against whom they are starkly contrasted: i.e., Helmer for Nora and Lyubov for Lopakhin. However, a significant difference in the two characters lies in that among their respective pairs, Nora’s character is demeaned by her childish, subservient qualities while Lopakhin’s character is elevated through his logical reasoning and ability to think without being too emotional or nostalgic. Further, Nora is Helmer’s “little squirrel” (Ibsen, p. 2); his “skylark” (Ibsen, p.49); and his “nibbly cat” (Ibsen, p. 25). Of particular significance are the possessive pronouns that Helmer uses upon Nora as she is his, objectifying her further through the obvious connotations of owning her. The idea of Nora’s captivity with her personality, family and society is thus central to Ibsen’s above mentioned metaphors.
As for Lopakhin, he is essentially the peasant character who has risen out of his class in the new age of money, through his energy and business ability. The aristocrats nevertheless look down upon him, almost despite themselves. They mock his ideas: “What nonsense!” (Chekhov, p. 334) says Gayev while Lyubov finds his idea “so vulgar” (Chekhov, p. 350). Despite the aristocrats’ feelings though, the audience sides with Lopakhin as he constantly proposes a logical solution: “I tell you every day. Every day I say the same thing. Both the cherry orchard and the land must be leased for summer cottages, and it must be done now, as quickly as possible-? the auction is close at hand.
Try to understand!” (Chekhov, p. 350) The repetition of “every day,” the splicing of that one word into two, terms such as “now” and “as quickly as possibly” in conjunction with the m-dash and exclamation mark used in this citation all indicate the urgency in his speech and further depict Lopakhin’s logical nature. His frustration is shared by the audience too as the aristocrats continuously delve into nostalgic soliloquies, such as that of Lyubov on page 351. Thus in both plays a distinct contrast is established between the characters of Nora and Lopakhin and the surrounding characters.
This contrast becomes of utmost importance as the characters of Nora and Lopakhin feel love and respect for the socially empowered characters, which deteriorates throughout the plays. “After all, it is splendid to be waiting for a wonderful thing” (Ibsen, p. 50) With a childlike anticipation,. The childish innocence and inexperience permits her to assume without question that her husband is good and noble, like her father. To Dr. Rank, she even verbalizes this reverence for Helmer: “When I lived at home, naturally, I loved Father above all else…You can well imagine that being with Torvald is just like being with father.” (Ibsen, p. 39)
This explicit similie elucidates Nora’s true feelings for Helmer which consist of a fatherly love and admiration, rather than a romantic love and attraction. Similarly, Lopakhin looks up imploringly to Lyubov. He remembers with gratitude her kindness to him as a boy: “[Lyubov] is a fine person…I remember when I was a boy of fifteen, my late father…gave me a punch in the face and made my nose bleed…[Lyubov] led me to the washstand in this very room…”Don’t cry, little peasant,” she said, “it will heal…” ” Moreover, Lopakhin even assists Lyubov financially, which is ironic considering their social statuses.
Overall, due to the audience’s close rapport with Nora and Lopakhin and the established contrast between these characters and others, it is evident how undeserving the recipients of Nora and Lopakhin’s love are, at least to the modern audience. For the audience of their respective time periods though, such outright role reversals as that of Nora and Helmer at the end where Helmer transforms into the child and looks up to Nora’s determination with admiration and pleads for her to stay with him, and that of Lopakhin and Lyubov where the peasant buys the aristocratic household was shocking. However perhaps it was to lessen this outrage that the playwrights instilled in the two characters a respect for the empowered persons. The audience would therefore be more likely to tolerate if these characters still followed societal norms ideologically, and knew their place in the social structure rather than being outright radical.