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Setting And Portraying Change In Ghosts English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1599 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The well-made play1 is a form of writing adopted to reflect a perfection of plot that used many key dramatic devices such as the setting to render this flawlessness to the plot. This style of drama became very common throughout the 19th century and was initially looked down upon, but modern dramatists like Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekov used this very form to create the impact of the realism that they wanted to portrayed in their plays. Henrik Ibsen wrote the play Ghosts at a time when the Norwegian society was in desperate need for a change in mindset; Chekov’s play, The Cherry Orchard, was also written at around a similar time to reflect the need for the social reform brought by the Russian revolution. Thus an emphasis on the idea of change is laid out by both these plays. This change is seen to affect all classes of the respective societies.

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Thus the importance of a realistic setting becomes evident. Both the playwrights portrayed real individuals and this made the setting crucial to intensify the impact of the play on the society. The plot in both the plays also revolves around the main setting to some extent and hence each play, in the Norwegian and Russian societies was written to serve as a revelation of the society for the people.

In Chekov’s play, The Cherry Orchard, the setting is vital. The name of the play itself is suggestive of this importance of the central setting, that is, the Orchard. A character called Gayef further substantiates this when he says, “This orchard is mentioned in the “Encyclopaedic Dictionary.”2 The human attachment to the physical surroundings as seen in the play is so immense that the life of the main characters literally revolves around the orchard. This is one of the problems Chekov tried to highlight and by using this extreme attachment to the setting he also manages to bring out many different character traits like Madame Ranevsky’s backward ideology in the beginning of the play itself. The present generation contrasts those characters that were attached to the orchard. Thus the orchard symbolizes clinging on to the past. Lopakhin who is part of the present generation, zealously endorses the sale and possible cutting of the orchard by calling it something “charming and delightful”3, whereas Madame Ranevsky who finds this absurd, in shock exclaims, [1] “Cut down the cherry orchard!”4 The two characters hold two different viewpoints and are shown to reflect the macrocosm equivalent of the future generation and the old aristocracy.

Compared to Chekov, Ibsen’s use of setting is more subdued. Yet he employs the setting to reflect the internal differences in the characters as well as the society at that time. The setting in Ghosts is a blend of the atmosphere and the orphanage, these can be considered equivalent to the Cherry Orchard. Ghosts opens on “a gloomy fjord landscape”5 that could “be discerned, half-obscured by steady rain”6. Though this setting is not unusual in a place like Norway, Ibsen’s use of diction like “gloomy” is clear indication that he intended it to be a bleak, dull opening while maintaining the natural setting in essence with the realistic elements. Reference to this setting by the characters shows us the differences in characterization that are substantial to plot progression. Mr. Manders calls the daily rain “tiresome”7 and Regina retorts with a more positive youthful reply [1] “It’s a splendid rain for the farmers”8. Here too a contrast in the two generations is established.

The setting in Chekov’s play has the element of change embedded in it. He sets the cherry orchard alongside a “row of telegraph poles”9, the contrast of the old and new are a poignant reminder of the major changes that the people of the Russian society were going through and hence it reflects the personal situation of the characters to greater effect. This transformation and progression in the society is achieved through this change in setting.

The extreme level of personal attachment and sentiment that the characters give the Orchard are a reminder of the human inability to accept change without resistance. Madame Ranevsky epitomizes this trait through the diction she uses to describe the orchard “Oh my orchard”10 as though it were something animate and alive, “the angels of heaven have not abandoned you”11. She relies on the Orchard as a safeguard to sustain herself as she undergoes a financial crisis, but is completely unable to bring herself to part with it. When it is finally sold she “sinks into a chair and weeps bitterly.”12 Her personal condition, reflected in the breaking of the orchard, symbolizes that change has finally crept into the society. Peter is the only one who see’s “the old cherry-trees seem to be dreaming of all that was a hundred, two hundred years ago”13, he recognizes the need for change in the stagnating society and Chekov delivers the finality of this change when the Orchard is bought by Lopakhin whose ancestors “were slaves, where they weren’t even allowed into the kitchen.”14 And finally he is the one who pioneers the symbolic cutting of the Cherry orchard and to “see a new life”15 in place of the past and decaying Orchard. The changes in the setting mirror her personal development.

Ibsen on the other hand focuses on a harsher reality of life. The orphanage in Ghosts, like the orchard, was a reminder of the past and was built in the memory of Mr. Alving. This of course as Ibsen later clarifies is only a surface for the true ghosts of the past he wants to portray. The change is seen within the characters and the views of society pave the way for this change to be brought about.

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The setting is used to reflect the ghosts of the past and yet add to the eerie nature of the plot, “The couple in the conservatory–over again.”16 The orphanage is a symbolic setting through which Mrs. Alving wishes to rid her of these ghosts, it is a reflection of her inane desire to change but this is yet not fulfilled. That is why at this point in the play the gloomy landscape “is still obscured by Mist.”17 Ibsen challenges Mrs. Alving’s personal ability to accept the ghosts of her past and also through her dialogue questions societies stagnating views on taboo issues like venereal disease, free love and even incest. Oswald suffers from an inherited disease even though Mrs. Alving tried to keep him away from his atrocious father and the “the air of this polluted house”18 Ibsen prepares the audience for the climactic change and it is finally brought out when the truth is spoken out loud, this serves as a greater message for the society to openly accept its own flaws. The parson himself establishes a “sailors home”19, the orphanage burns down and with it Mrs. Alving and Oswald clear the “polluted air”20 by opening up to each other about the disease and the true nature of Oswald’s father. The fjord landscape “bathed in bright morning light” [2] 1 poignantly establishes the finality of this change.

Without conflict there is no scope for change and hence the setting is crucial to both Ibsen and Chekov. This conflict could be in the setting itself, as we have seen in the representation of old and new in The Cherry Orchard or it could also be within the characters themselves. The conflict may be a result of a dispute over the setting or an internal reflection of turmoil in the setting. In The Cherry Orchard we see a clear contrast between characters like Madame Ranevsky and Lopakhin through the value they attach to the orchard, Madame Ranevsky, a representative of the past, epitomizes extreme attachment whereas Lopakhin’s far-sighted views on the orchard embody the ideals of a progressing society.

In Ghosts too conflict through the setting is evident when Mr. Manders rebukes Oswald for living in an immoral community in Paris but Oswald finds nothing immoral in the liberal minded artist community. This emphasizes the differences in the mindset of the characters.

Thus the setting reflects the change in the respective societies portrayed. In both the plays this microcosm reflects the macrocosm of the larger societies where the plays were preformed. The transformation shown in the personal lives of the characters reflected the need for change in the society at large. Hence, both Ibsen and Chekov were able to emphasize the importance of this change in the society without actually preaching to do so. They employ the setting as a tool to make the rather exaggerated situations seem more believable. In the end we see the change incorporated into every aspect, there is a change seen in personalities, societies and even the settings in both plays. The “orchard” [2] 2is cut and the “sun”23 has finally risen.


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