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‘Symbolism’ is an effective figure of speech used in plays to convey more than a single meaning or a theme. It is often used by various dramatists in their works not only to put across themes effectively, but also assist in characterization. In the two plays, The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov and Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen there has been a constant use of a number of symbols. A variety of objects, characters and events have been used as symbols. The key symbol in The Cherry Orchard is the cherry orchard itself and in Ghosts, is the Orphanage. Both these plays have a lot in common, apart from being written between similar time periods, they deal with parallel themes concerning the past and society. The Cherry Orchard was originally written in Russian during the Emancipation, so it is heavily influenced by social change, while Ghosts was originally written in Norwegian, it is greatly influenced by that culture. The Cherry Orchard and Ghosts are both considered to be forms of ‘naturalistic drama’ because the playwrights have created characters that are like real human beings and react to situations in a genuine manner.
The Cherry Orchard comes across as a tragedy due to the unfortunate consequences that befall the family. The manners in which the characters react to the situations are justified in the real world. There are a large number of symbols throughout the play which aid in conveying the themes successfully, but the cherry orchard itself is looked at as a key symbol for various reasons. The play begins with a vivid description of a May morning in Russia. Chekhov begins this play with the lines, “the cherry trees are in blossom, but it is cold in the garden and there is a morning frost”  , the use of vivid visual imagery and the mention of the cherry orchard at the beginning of the play introduce the audience to the setting and also the idea that it is the major element of the play. It is constantly mentioned throughout by various characters, this just continues to emphasise on its significance in the play.
Ghosts is the tragic story of the life of Mrs. Alving, who has to deal with problems concerning not only herself, but also her son. It is a social satire which openly deals with issues like incest, infidelity, venereal diseases and euthanasia which were and still are considered taboos in society. The orphanage is the most significant symbol in this play. The opening of the orphanage which is mentioned by Engstrand in Act I of the play conveys that the orphanage is the centre of all events. It is constantly discussed by the characters throughout the play. The past plays a major role in this play; it is also a major theme which is conveyed to the audience through the presence of the orphanage. The past of the Alving family is shrouded by the existence of the orphanage this becomes evident when Mrs. Alving says; “the Orphanage is to exist, to silence all rumours and clear away all doubt”  . It can be looked at as a symbol of purgation for all the sins committed by Mr. Alving in the past.
The past again, plays a major role in The Cherry Orchard. Characters like Madame Ranevsky and Gayef are obsessed with it; they cling to it and use it as an escape from the present. According to Madame Ranevsky “the orchard was just as same then as it is now”  ; this shows her attachment to the past. Later, in the same dialogue she says, “If only I could forget my past!”  This statement is quite ironical because she constantly brings up the past throughout the play. Chekhov frequently draws a distinction between the past and, the present and the changing times. Act II begins with the stage setting – “Beyond them begins the cherry orchard. In the distance a row of telegraph poles, and, far away on the horizon, the dim outlines of a big town, visible only in fine, clear weather”  , here there is a stark contrast between the cherry orchard which symbolises the ancestral heritage or the past and the telegraph poles stand for the changing times. After the Emancipation, Russia underwent an immense social change, there was the development of cities and towns, increase in the means of communication and also rise of the middle class. Another important event which symbolises the changing times is the sale of the cherry orchard. The cutting down of the cherry orchard which belonged to the family signifies the decline of the aristocracy and when the orchard is bought by Lopakhin who is a part of the rising middle class, it represents the change in social order of Russia.
Society plays a major role in Ghosts too. But unlike Chekhov, Ibsen looks at the Norwegian society in the form of a satire. He blatantly crashes out at all the taboo issues in society. Even though these issues were not as evident as in the play, they were definitely prevalent. The mere building of the orphanage is to disguise the immoral past of Mr. Alving and hide it form society. Mrs. Alving had completely different reasons for the existence of this orphanage. She did not wish her son “to inherit a penny that belonged to his father”  , because she resented his immoral ways and did not want them to be a bad influence on her son. The theme where the lives of individuals are constantly interfered in by society and it’s so called ‘moral values’. The freedom to express one’s personal opinion freely without being misjudged is another issue. Mrs. Alving undergoes immense social trauma for all her actions, she is criticized by society without them even thinking of the reason behind those actions. She was called a “fallen woman”  because she had deserted her husband. In order to re-establish her reputation in society she builds the orphanage.
Freedom is another significant theme in The Cherry Orchard. The freedom of the serfs in Russia was a historical event. The auction of the cherry orchard to pay off the mortgage and the shifting of the family leads to the freedom of their servants like Yasha and Dunyasha. They represent the free serfs and the change in social order. But, strangely this freedom was not accepted by all, like in the case of Firs. He “wouldn’t have any Liberation”  and he would have rather stayed with his master. He was a representative of another class all together, who did not approve of the freedom of serfs. The deteriorating financial condition of Madame Ranevsky represented the declining aristocracy and the acquisition of the cherry orchard by Lopakhin symbolised the rising middle class. The class distinction is quite evident at the beginning of the play but as the plot progresses there is a blurring of this class distinction.
In Ghosts Mrs. Alving, the protagonist is characterized by all the events that relate to the orphanage: her reasons behind building the orphanage, her reaction to the insurance of the orphanage and the burning down of the orphanage. Ibsen portrays her as one of those women who prefer not to conform to society. All her reactions are unlike what one would usually expect as they do not follow the ‘moral values’ and ‘social norms’. This reveals the position of women in the Norwegian society. Mr. Manders is another character who represents the major part of the society. His actions and reactions are typical of most people. To him public opinion is of utmost importance. While contemplating whether to insure the orphanage or not he says,” It would be so extremely easy for them to interpret it as a meaning that neither you nor I had a proper reliance on Divine protection.”  This just proves that he cares only about his reputation and what society thinks of him. When the orphanage burns down, he is easily swayed by Engstrands remarks and is willing to give up all his so called ‘moral values’ just so that he is able to save his reputation.
Even both these plays bring about the various facets of society; there are certain areas of difference. The Cherry Orchard revolves around the importance of the presence of class distinctions and the change in these barriers, while the orphanage in Ghosts brings about the expectations of society. Both the cherry orchard and the orphanage hence serve as effective symbols throughout the play.
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