In the plays The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov, A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, and Galileo by Bertolt Brecht, the
protagonists’ mental beliefs combine reality and illusion that both
shape the plot of each respective story. The ability of the
characters to reject or accept an illusion, along with the foolish
pride that motivated their decision, leads to their personal downfall.
In The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov, Gayev and Miss
Ranevsky, along with the majority of their family, refuse to believe
that their estate is close to bankruptcy. Instead of accepting the
reality of their problem, they continue to live their lives under the
illusion that they are doing well financially. The family continues
with its frivolous ways until there is no money left (the final night
they have in the house before it is auctioned, they throw an
extravagant party, laughing in the face of impending financial ruin)
Even when Lopakhin attempts to rescue the family with ideas that could
lead to some of the estate being retained, they dismiss his ideas
under the illusion that the situation is not so desperate that they
need to compromise any of their dignity.
Lopakhin: As you know, your cherry orchards being sold to pay your
debts. The auction is on the twenty second of August. But theres no
need to worry, my dear. You can sleep soundly. Theres a way out.
Heres my plan. Listen carefully, please. Your estate is only about
twelve miles from town, and the railway is not very far away. Now all
you have to do is break up your cherry orchard and the land along the
river into building plots and lease them out for country cottages.
Youll then have an income of at least twenty-five thousand a year.
Gayev: Im sorry, but what utter nonsense!
(Later in the Dialogue)
Mrs. Ranevsky: Cut down? My dear man, Im very sorry but I dont
think you know what youre talking about….
Lopakhin: If we cant think of anything and if we cant come to any
decision, it wont only be your cherry orchard, but your whole estate
that will be sold at auction on the twenty-second of August. Make up
your mind. I tell you there is no other way. (Page 621-622)
This inability on the behalf of the family to realize the
seriousness of their situation is due to their refusal to accept
reality. If they had recognized the situation they were in, and
dealt with it, (they may have been able to save some of their money,
or even curbed their spending) they could have saved themselves.
Unfortunately, once things got bad for them financially, they refused
to accept that fact that circumstances had changed, and instead
continued to live as though nothing were wrong.
They adopted this illusion as a savior of their pride, and the
illusion eventually became reality for the family. Their pride
wouldnt allow for anything else. They were too proud to accept that
their social status, and financial status was in jeopardy, so they
chose to live a life of illusion. In their imaginary situation, they
were going to be fine. It is easier to believe something when you
really want it to be true. Unfortunately, outside situations don’t
change, even if you can fool yourself into thinking they don’t exist.
The illusion that they used to run their lives became the
source of their downfall. Since they grasped at their illusion so
tightly, in vain hopes that it would replace reality, they failed to
deal practically with their problem, until it got to the point where
they had to. They were kicked out onto the street, and had all of
their material things taken from them. The most important thing they
had — their status — was gone.
In A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen, property and status are
again destined to be lost. The illusion is twisted. At the beginning
of the play, Nora leads a life under the illusion that everything was
perfect. She lives for eight years with the knowledge that she has
broken the law, and betrayed her husband. Though it was necessary,
the psychological toll it took on her and the family was hardly
Along with Noras flaws, her husband was also at fault. He
couldnt accept what Nora had done, and wouldnt have been able to
deal with the extreme changes which she had undergone. His pride
wouldnt let him accept that he needed a woman to help him; that he
couldnt handle everything alone without the help of another person
(This stoic male ideal has lead to the downfall of many men). His
self-confidence would not have been strong enough to take that kind of
blow to his ego.
If she had forced her husband into handling the situation, by
having him borrow money himself, everything would have turned out
fine. She, instead, took out the loan on her own, and didn’t even
clue in her husband. She tried to avoid having his pride injured by
forcing him to borrow money, even though it was necessary to save his
From this experience she grew. She learned about human
nature, and about the value of money, and had even learned a lesson of
practicality. Instead of clueing in her husband about what she had
done, (the final step in the maturation process she had undergone —
being able to accept blame) she kept quiet and left him ignorant. She
lived her life in an illusion, pretending to be the old Nora that she
was, and not the new and changed woman she had developed into. She
didn’t let the person she had become permeate all the aspects of her
life. She let the illusion of the old Nora continue well after she
had become a new person. Eventually she evolved into a person who
couldnt stand to be married to Helmer anymore.
Helmer: Nora, I would gladly work for you night and day, and endure
sorrow and hardship for your sake. But no man can be expected to
sacrifice his honor, even for the person he loves.
Nora: Millions of women have done it.
Helmer: Oh, you think and talk like a stupid child.
Nora: That may be. But you neither think nor talk like the man I
could share my life with…as I am now, I am no wife for you. (Page
If she had continued to grow, and mature, and had accepted the
kind of person she became, then perhaps she would have gained the
courage to tell her husband what she had done. She would not have had
to leave. She could have educated him gradually instead of
immediately surrendering any hope by leaving everything she has ever
known. Nora’s failure to accept what she had really become led to the
end of her life with Helmer, and her downfall in society. It was also
Helmers downfall socially and emotionally.
Galileo, by Berolt Brecht, is rather different from both of
the previously mentioned situations in that the protagonist puts forth
a faade of living with an illusion (that he had truly recanted, and
truly believed his theories to be false), when in reality he didn’t
believe it. His denial of this illusion led to his collapse.
Granted, on the exterior, his collapse seems relatively
minimal (he ends up with a popular status among the people of his
city, and throughout Europe), but he is disgusted with himself. The
feeling that other people have towards him does not lead him to
believe that he did the right thing. Instead, if he had been
steadfast to what he thought, instead of buckling to the illusions
that everyone had of him (that he was a person who immediately
realized he was wrong, and valued the church more than his theories)
he would have been much happier, although he’d be dead too. He leads
the rest of his life echoing the idea in his head that he was weak and
Galileo: …At that particular time, had one man put up a fight, it
could have had wide repercussions. I have come to believe that I was
never in real danger; for some years I was as strong as the
authorities, and I surrendered my knowledge to the powers that be, to
use it, no, not to use it, to abuse it, as it suits their ends. I
have betrayed my profession. Any man who does what I have done must
not be tolerated in the ranks of science. (p.809).
Some people look at Galileo as a coward for what he did, since
he did not stand up for what he believed, even though his life was on
the line. I disagree. He is more of a hero for what he did than if
he had let himself become a martyr. He let the church believe what
they wanted to about him, but internally, he remained the same. He
instead lived the rest of his life supporting a fallacy. He had to
pretend that a fundamental part of his belief system did not exist.
Galileo, being a proud and stubborn man found this to be the most
difficult task of his life.
His pride refused to let him accept the illusion (that his
theory was completely wrong) over reality. If he had, he would have
been a happier person, and the conflict that he lived with every day
would be resolved.
He ends up in a better state superficially, but internally,
his refusal to accept an illusion has led to his intense dislike for
himself and his moral base. If he could have somehow reconciled his
beliefs with the life he actually led, he wouldn’t have ended up as
bitter or sad a person as he did.
Throughout each of these plays, the main character (or
characters) faced a reality that they cease to accept, and instead
live in an illusion (except in the case of Galileo, in which case the
reverse is true). The refusal to accept a reality or illusion led to
the characters’ fall in status and/or emotional well being.