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The tightly unified plot of Chekov's short, but masterful, play is developed in a classical manner. Revolving around Lyobov and the sale of the cherry orchard, the play adheres to the unities of time, place, and character. Lyobov is the protagonist and central focus of the play, appearing in each act. The entire setting of the play takes place on her estate, mostly in the home where she has spent her childhood. In addition, only a few days pass in the play, making it easy to follow.
The first act of the play is largely introductory, with the main characters being presented and initially developed; the conflict and the setting of the play are also clearly established. By the second act, the rising action of the plot has begun. Lyobov is considering all the options that she has to save the cherry orchard from being auctioned. Even though Lopahin offers a way to save the estate by building villas on the property and renting them out to foreign tourists, Lyobov is too proud and aristocratic to stoop to such a capitalistic plan. Instead, she begs Gaev, her brother, to borrow money from a wealthy aunt in order to purchase the cherry orchard and keep it in the family, where she feels it belongs. Through her thoughts and actions, Lyobov develops the central theme of the play; she shows the difficulty of the Russian aristocracy to accept the changes that are occurring in Russian society with the emergence of a middle class that earns its own wealth.
In addition to the main plot, there are several minor subplots, all revolving around love and all ending in defeat. Lyobov herself tries to escape her lover in Paris, but returns to him in the end when she has no place else to go. Anya is attracted to Trofimov, but cannot win him, for he is too preoccupied with lofty ideas and the pursuit of further studies. Varya is attracted to Lopahin and hopes to marry him; however, he is too busy with his business and making money to fall in love or to propose marriage. Even Dunyasha, the servant, cannot persuade Yasha to marry her; he is eager to return to Paris with Lyobov. As a result, none of the romances in the novel come to a happy conclusion.