Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 600
The Seagull inaugurates the most significant portion of Chekhov’s career, when his major plays were written, and marks a departure from his earlier dramatic work, chiefly conventionally structured short plays with plots developing onstage climax and resolution. The Seagull and subsequent plays treat onstage the characters’ inner action and lives without typical plot progression, while keeping dramatic events offstage. The play’s production proved a disaster. Masterfully directed two years later at the new Moscow Art Theatre, it was a recognized success as a new dramatic form.
In the play’s first of four acts, a celebrated stage actress, Arkadina, returns to visit her estate with her younger lover and popular writer, Trigorin. There they, with her doddering brother Sorin and visitors, are given a performance of a murky symbolistic play by her son Konstantin. Its sole performer is a neighbor girl, Nina, whom Konstantin adores. When the play is rejected by both Arkadina and Trigorin as decadent, its author is devastated.
The second act reveals the characters’ unhappy lives fueled by unrequited love. Both the estate manager’s wife and her daughter, Masha, are rejected by those they love: respectively, physician Dr. Dorn and Konstantin. The latter jealously loves his dismissive mother, who strives to hold onto the self-absorbed Trigorin. Angry at Nina’s indifference to his play, Konstantin kills a seagull and gives it to her as a symbol of ruined hope before departing. Trigorin, meanwhile, is flattered by Nina’s affectionate admiration and is led to admit his success stems from his writing about mere trivialities. Observing the dead gull, he remembers a story idea about a girl who lives free as a seagull until she is a seen by a man who indifferently destroys her like the shot seagull.
In act 3, after a failed suicide attempt, Konstantin berates his departing mother for remaining with Trigorin, whom he calls a hack, and is rebuffed by her. Nina, now determined to leave her family and pursue an acting career, offers her love to Trigorin and arranges to meet him in Moscow.
The final act occurs two years later. Arkadina and the still celebrated Trigorin return to the estate to find that Konstantin has become a published writer. The aging Arkadina is trying to keep a grip on Trigorin and her fading glory as an actress. Masha, ever-devoted to Konstantin, has joylessly married a schoolmaster. Nina, a lowly provincial actress who still loves Trigorin, arrives in the vicinity. Konstantin has followed her unspectacular stage career and knows that Trigorin had left her with a child who died. Nina, still believing in her art, meets Konstantin, declines his urgent invitation to stay with him, and departs to continue her acting, Without her, Konstantin determines that his art and recognition are meaningless and shoots himself.
One underlying theme of the play is each character’s isolation and failure to achieve his or her dreams. Chekhov employs such dialogue devices as pauses, fragments of speech, and soliloquies to reveal a character’s inner self. Another thematic thread is the nature of art and artists. Four characters are artists reflecting individual attitudes. Konstantin’s working desire for new forms is undeveloped. His work is anathema both to his mother, whose fading career remains rooted in pseudorealistic theater, and to Trigorin, who aspires to treat vital issues but remains a popular hack. Despite Trigorin’s desertion and her plodding career, Nina rejects her family’s security and Konstantin to hold true to her art. The pervasive seagull metaphor represents not only Nina but the failed hopes and discontented lives of all the characters.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1023
One day Konstantin Treplev kills a seagull and places it at the feet of Nina, the beautiful young actor with whom he is hopelessly in love. He tells her that unless she can love him, he, too, will be lying dead at her feet. Nina, however, is not in love with Konstantin; she is infatuated with Trigorin, the famous novelist, who in turn is in love with Irina Arkadina, an actor and Konstantin’s mother.
Konstantin hates Trigorin, looking upon him as a purveyor of empty phrases, a writer entirely different from what he himself hopes to become. Konstantin’s ambition is to create new and more expressive literary forms, and he wrote a play in which Nina consents to appear. The performance, staged in the open air on the estate of Pyotr Sorin, Konstantin’s uncle, is not exactly a success, although it possesses unquestioned literary merit. Madame Arkadina and Trigorin, who are present, refuse to take the production seriously. Trigorin is most impressed by the performance of nineteen-year-old Nina in the principal role.
Madame Arkadina’s behavior at her son’s play is typical of her attitude toward Konstantin in every aspect of their relationship. As a famous actor, whose popularity depends upon her keeping her youth and her good looks, she naturally is not overjoyed at the constant reminder that she is the mother of a twenty-five-year-old son. Consequently, she keeps Konstantin in the country, where he will not be seen and thus be associated with her in the public mind. Moreover, she gives him little or no money to spend, so that he is forced to wear the same suit for years until it is threadbare. Her brother, Pyotr Sorin, takes his sister to task on several occasions for her stinginess, but she pleads poverty, meaning, of course, that she prefers to spend her money on herself.
In spite of the way she treats him, Konstantin is greatly attached to his mother, so much so that he develops a morbid, unhealthy attitude toward his work and life in general. Occasionally he will lose his temper and quarrel violently with his mother. When he does so, she bursts into tears, and Konstantin is overcome promptly by feelings of remorse.
Konstantin is not the only unbalanced individual on the Sorin estate. Another is Masha, the daughter of Pyotr Sorin’s manager, who is as hopelessly in love with Konstantin as he is with Nina. Although she is only a young girl, she dresses habitually in black—in mourning, she says, for her chronic unhappiness. Semyon Medvedenko, the schoolmaster, is in love with her, but he has only twenty-three rubles a month on which to support his mother, two sisters, and a brother. After two years, giving up all hope that Konstantin will ever notice her, Masha decides to marry Semyon. She has a child, but she is so indifferent to it that the schoolmaster takes care of the baby in addition to his other responsibilities.
Konstantin, like most young writers, knows many people who are willing to offer him advice on how he should write and what he should write about. Among these advisers is Yevgeny Dorn, the local doctor, who never wrote a line in his life, but who has theories about how it should be done. His idea is that Konstantin spends entirely too much time worrying about literary form, whereas literature is not a matter of form, good or bad, but of spontaneous ideas. Another dispenser of advice is the old man, Pyotr Sorin. He suggests that his nephew write a story called The Man Who Wished, based on Sorin’s own life. He maintains that when he was young he wished to become an author but failed. Then he wanted to become an orator, but he spoke abominably. Finally he wanted to marry, but he never did. When Sorin is reminded that he also wished to become State Councilor and succeeded, he roars with laughter, claiming that he achieved the post with no effort of his own. The most complete analysis of the writer’s art is made by the novelist, Trigorin. One day, while he is taking notes on the personal habits of the neurotic Masha, he is interrupted by Nina, who expresses the view that a writer’s life must be a very fascinating one. He tells her that writing is merely a violent obsession that lays hold of a man and places him on a treadmill from which there is no escape. Against his will, almost, the writer of fiction is compelled to utilize everything in his experience for his next story. Even the seemingly trivial incident of the seagull that Konstantin shot, Trigorin views as material for a story. He begins to see Nina herself as the seagull and himself as the hunter. He realizes that Madame Arkadina will be furiously jealous of his interest in the younger woman. Fate plays into his hands when Nina promises to run away from home and join him in Moscow.
For nearly a year Nina is Trigorin’s mistress in Moscow. After she has a child, who soon dies, Trigorin deserts her. Even her acting career is unsuccessful, consisting largely of a tour of country towns. All that time Konstantin follows Nina about, but the only encouragement he gets is an occasional letter that shows Nina’s spirit near the breaking point.
At last, worn out and hungry, she comes to the Sorin estate, which awakens in her memories of her happy girlhood. Konstantin urges her to stay with him or to allow him to go away with her, but she refuses. She accepts an engagement for the winter with a second-rate repertory company at Eltz, and there she intends to go as the next step in her career as an actor. Out of her suffering she realizes that in any art it is not the honor and glory that matters—it is perseverance. Konstantin does not have that kind of strength, and when Nina, the seagull, flies out of his life forever, he locks himself in his room and puts a bullet through his head.