Unlike Act I, which is set indoors in the spring, Act II is set outside in the fields in summertime. The governess Charlotte and the servants Yasha and Dunyasha sit together on a bench as the sun goes down. The clerk Ephikhodof stands beside them playing a guitar. Charlotte is cleaning her gun and tells them how she was an orphan who performed tricks for pay at county fairs and how she always feels isolated even when she is not alone. However, the rest ignore her, as if to emphasize her point. Ephikhodof is in love with the young servant girl Dunyasha but she is interested in Yasha, who smokes a cigar like the aristocrat he wishes to be: "what happiness it must be to live abroad," the girl gushes. (18). Feeling ignored once again, Charlotte announces "I'm done, I'm off . . . why I exist is a mystery" (18).
At this point, Madame Ranevsky, Gayef her brother and her neighbor Lopakhin enter. Lopakhin is still after Madame Ranevsky to sell the cherry orchard but as usual she won't hear of it. She avoids the subject by complaining about Yasha's cigar as she once more ignores the insistent Lopakhin. Madame Ranevsky drops her purse and Yasha picks up the fallen gold coins. The frivolous Madame Ranevsky remarks about how she has once more spent too much money on lunch in town and comments on her brother's embarrassing tirade. However, when Yasha laughs at Gayef, thus overstepping his social boundaries, his mistress insists he leave.
Lopakhin continues to hammer home the subject of cutting down the cherry orchard to build profitable villas upon the land. Madame Ranevsky and Gayef insist they have written to their aunt to send them money but Lopakhin is shocked to find how little they have requested. He insists such a small amount will never be enough to make the mortgage payment: "in all my life I never met anyone so frivolous as you two, so crazy and unbusinesslike. I tell you in plain Russian your property is going to be sold and you don't seem to understand what I say" (20). Once more they avoid the inevitable, and Madame Ranevsky blames everything on bad luck. Six years earlier, her alcoholic husband died and almost immediately after so did her young son Grisha. Then she went to Paris and met another man who robbed her and ran off with another woman, this after she nursed him back to health. Her suicide attempt failed and here she is once more back in Russia. She holds up a telegram at this point and announces her lover wants her to return to Paris, but then she scornfully rips it up.
Once again, Lopakhin talks about his earlier life as a peasant and Madame Ranevsky advises him to marry her daughter Barbara. He says he is agreeable to this suggestion, but he does not sound at all enthusiastic: "well, why not? I'm quite willing, she's a nice girl." (22). Gayef tells them he has had a job offer from a bank and his sister scoffs "You in a bank! Stay where you are" (22).
The elderly servant Firs brings an overcoat for Gayef, whom he calls "master" and when Madame Ranevsky remarks on how old he looks, he begins to talk of the Liberation when the serfs were made free. He himself rejects the whole idea of Liberation and chooses instead to remain in his servile serf position.
At this point, young Anya enters with her sister Barbara and the tutor Trophimof. Lopakhin teases Trophimof about being such an old student and Trophimof denigrates Lopakhin for his means of accruing wealth: "you are a rich man; you will soon be a millionaire . . . just like a beast of prey" (23). Everyone laughs and Trophimof continues to elaborate on the idealist philosophical discussion he initiated the day before. The elderly servant Firs at this point foretells "great misfortune" after the group hears an owl. A drunken tramp dressed in rags appears and Barbara screams when he asks her for sixpence. Madame Ranevsky gives him a far more valuable sovereign and he happily exits as Barbara cries out as she sees her mother once more throwing money away. Madame Ranevsky tells the group that she has arranged for Lopakhin to marry Barbara. Barbara is embarrassed as Lopakhin makes light of the situation by ordering her in jest to "get thee to a nunnery," as Shakespeare's Hamlet did to Ophelia when he had no more use for her.
Everyone leaves and Anya and Trophimof are left behind. Anya tells Trophimof that he has caused her to no longer love the cherry orchard by raising her awareness to see that it is the product of years of human labor by serfs: "all your ancestors were serf owners, owners of living souls. Do not human spirits look out at you from every leaf and stem?" (27). Trophimof insists that they are above love, Barbara shouldn't be worried to leave them alone and that Anya should leave with him.
Chekhov further delineates his remarkable characters in Act II and heightens his central themes of progress and social change. Which of these characters will adapt to change and embrace a bright future and which will remain frozen in the past, doomed to a bleak future? Madame Ranevsky is simply incapable of change. She just cannot grasp the idea that her seemingly unlimited supply of cash has come to an end. Her dropped purse symbolizes her drop in social status through her loss of her money and also posits her servant Yasha who picks up the money as a thief, or at least a parasite, who takes advantage of her for his own financial gain. The scene also serves to bring home the idea of how Madame Ranevsky cannot hold on to her money, is utterly scattered-brained and irresponsible. On one hand, she complains about not having the funds to meet her mortgage payment and then hands over money to her neighbor Pishtchik for his mortgage. In this regard she is putting her family out of their home to impress a neighbor who knows full well her dire financial circumstances. In addition, her own servants go hungry while she feasts at a restaurant in town and tips the waiters lavishly with gold. Madame Ranevsky's brother Gayef is cut from the same cloth.
To reiterate, Lopakhin should be watched closely. Although he makes every attempt to get Madame Ranevsky and Gayef to sell the cherry orchard property and to build profitable villas on the land, Lopakhin might as well be speaking in a different language. Madame Ranevsky and Gayef look at the property strictly in romantic terms and associate it fondly with childhood memories: they just cannot accept the idea of having lower class neighbors living in nearby villas. This illustrates how clearly the former serf can see the future, or owns the future, as it were, and how deeply in denial the aging aristocrats remain and how incapable they are of adjusting to social change. Selling the cherry orchard property to Villa residents could, after all, salvage their money, if not their real estate. They are, in effect, totally blind.
The aging servant Firs further demonstrates the depths of denial and the inability to accept change. In this section Firs remembers how happy the serfs were right after Liberation and wonders why they should feel this way after achieving their freedom. Everyone in Russia, he says, had a place in society; everyone knew their place and happily remained in it for life. Indeed, he insists, life was easier then. Liberation might sound like a good idea, he continues, but people are not any happier trying to make lives for themselves, and the country has become weaker. In other words, Firs believes it is better to remain the property of others than take on the responsibility of individual choice. In this regard, the old-style aristocrat and the old-style servant are in solid agreement.
Trophimof, the permanent student, takes center stage in Act II. He philosophizes: "Mankind marches forward, perfecting its strength" (24). He represents the idea that change is inevitable and is wise enough to realize that if people don't change with the times, they will crack. People must take action, he insists, work hard and not remain passive, if they are to achieve any modicum of happiness: "everything that is unattainable for us now will one day be near and clear; but we must work" (24).
The educated people must stop talking and take action instead of complaining. Remaining passive, as is true of Madame Ranevsky and her brother, results in disaster. Russian society as a whole, he further preaches, must thus be active. He favors freedom of the serfs and feels optimistic about the future but he is also realistic in his realization that change is difficult and will take a great deal of sacrifice and work: "before we live in the present, we must first redeem the past; and it is only by suffering that we can redeem it, only by strenuous unremitting toil" (27).