The title of the article comes from the song, “Sixteen Tons”, which tells the story of an American coal miner and was made famous by Tennessee Ernie Ford. This song was written in 1946 and what was true just after World War II among the American coal miners is true now among many other aspects of society. As a consumerist society, the United States actually encourages people to go into debt as a way of helping to support our economy. In fact, it would not be untrue to say that someone could easily qualify as un-American if they do not go into debt.
Going into debt is not normally done because of basic necessities, such as food, but because we have been encouraged to believe that we need to keep buying things in order to be happy. If a person has any doubt about that, simply watch any television station on any evening and more time will be devoted to commercials than to the actual shows.
With every passing year it appears that the middle class is getting smaller and smaller. I would not be surprised if one day the middle class will disappear altogether. If you visit almost any suburban area you will see one shopping center after another where all the same products are sold. This is not a new development. In the 1960s, there was a song entitled “Big Yellow Taxi” which accurately describes this situation.
The demise of the middle class is certainly not a new problem. This issue was addressed by Anton Chekov (1860-1904) in his play The Cherry Orchard. This is rather unique because there “main character” is actually the orchard instead of any particular person and there is no character that could be considered a villain. The main person in the play is Madame Ranevskaya who owns the estate where the orchard is located.
Madame Ranevskaya is part of the old aristocracy in Russia which has now fallen on hard times. Her financial situation has given her two options. She can sell her estate and allow new houses to be built on the property or allow it to be taken away by the bank. Even though she would like to maintain her estate, she realizes this is not possible and either way the orchard will disappear. Her way of dealing with this is to spend seven years in Western Europe so she does not have to face the situation. She is also dealing with the fact that her marriage had failed and her son had drowned in the pond on the estate.1
Another character was Leonid Andreieveitch Gayev, Madame Ranevshaya’s brother. He is more of a comedic character than his sister. He is addicted to billiards and cannot engage in conversation without talking about it. His sister has no husband. One died and the other one continued to manipulate her even after their marriage failed, so she comes to rely upon Leonid. However, he still considers himself to be a ‘man of leisure’, so he is not really able to help his sister because he has no idea how to deal with this. He is a not a bad person, he is simply clueless about what is happening around him.
Next we meet Yermolai Alexeievitch Lopakhin, a merchant. Lopakhin is by far the richest character in the play, but comes from the lowest social class. This contrast defines his character: he is enjoying living the high life, but at the same time is uncomfortably conscious of his low beginnings and obsession with business. He is often portrayed as an unpleasant character because of his greedy tendencies and ultimate betrayal of the Gayev family, there is nothing in the play to suggest this. He works strenuously to help the Gayevs, but to no avail. Lopakhin can be understood as representing the new middle class in Russia; one of many threats to the old aristocratic way of doing things.2 It is this new middle class who will receive the benefit of turning the estate into a housing development.
Firs is the manservant who has been with the family for generations. He is almost 90 years old and remembers the days of Russian serfdom. An aging eccentric, Firs considers the emancipation of the Russian serfs to be a disaster, and talks nostalgically of the old days, when everybody admired their masters and owners, such as Gayev's parents and grandparents. He can be understood as a supporter of the Slavophile movement and appears to be rather lost in this new society. In Firs, we can see the decline of the old order.
Ultimately the cherry orchard is sold and the family leaves the house to be torn down. The orchard is chopped down and sold for the firewood. Chekhov does an amazing job of presenting the different emotions and motivating factors of the characters and, in the end, it seems as though he is making the point that society will progress and change will occur regardless of what the individual might desire or try to hold on to. All of his characters have their personal desires and idiosyncrasies, but they cannot change the fact that Russia is undergoing drastic change. All of the characters are being buffeted by the tide of change, but they can control their future by the attitude with which they view the future.3
What Chekov wrote about Russia in the 19th Century is also true in the United States in the 21st Century. Family farms in the US are becoming a thing of the past. The land is worth an enormous amount of money as the farmer sinks deeper and deeper into debt. His land is sold to a real estate developer who will build another shopping mall (which we certainly do not need), a housing development where every home looks like every other home, or some “McMansions” (enormous homes which are so expensive to maintain that many people find it difficult to furnish them). Could this really be considered progress?
This does not have to be the future of modern society, but if things are going to change it is essential that we bring about this change. We certainly can control our attitude about the future, but this does not mean that we should simply allow things to remain the same if we can do something to change it.
The Cherry Orchard was Chekov’s last play. He is certainly an example of a classic Russian author since this plays speaks to countless generations and can be read numerous times with different insights being gained with each new reading.
1) Matthew Raphael Johnson The Ancient Orthodox Tradition in Russian Literature (PA: Deipara Press, 2010), p. 77
2) “The Cherry Orchard” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cherry_Orchard
3) “Symbolism in The Cherry Orchard: Chekov’s Russia” http://bewhuebner.hubpages.com/hub/symbolism-in-the-cherry-orchard-chekhovs-russia