Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1894
If there is an overriding theme in The Seagull, it is that humankind's greatest enemy is time, the relentless enemy of passion and hope. It is a play of hopelessly misplaced love or desire. Many of the characters want love from others who are either indifferent or have emotional commitments elsewhere and are frustrated in their own turn. There are no fortuitous liaisons in the play. Rather, except for the residual and somewhat enigmatic passion that binds Irina Arkadina and Boris Trigorin, the passions of each of the needful characters make them miserable, albeit, at times, comically so.
Alienation and Loneliness
A theme developed and exploited in much of modern literature is the individual's susceptibility to a sense of isolation and alienation in an environment that is basically inimical to that individual's emotional or mental health. The most important isolated figure in Chekhov's play is Konstantine Treplyov, the uncompromising artist alienated from those around him because they are much too conventional to share his convictions about a need for ‘‘new forms.’’ He is, of course, even isolated from his mother, a selfish woman who perceives her son as a rather unpleasant and distressingly gloomy young man who threatens both her pocketbook and those things held most dear to her—her career and her loyalty to Boris Trigorin.
Familial alienation is also found elsewhere in the play. For example, Masha and her mother, Pauline, are both unhappy with Shamreyeff. Masha finds him impossible to confide in and seeks a surrogate father in the person of Dorn, to whom she confesses her love for Konstantine. Her mother, meanwhile, also looks for love from Dorn, a man who seems constitutionally ill-suited to fulfill the needs of either of the two supplicants. Another example is Nina, who is alienated from her father and stepmother, background characters who have a disapproving, puritanical suspicion of their artistic neighbors.
Others, like Sorin, experience a different kind of isolation. Once a magistrate with the authority of law supporting him, he has lost control of his own estate, even of his life. He is estranged from the only life he valued, that of the town, and is simply bored by the country. Dorn and Shamreyeff, even Trigorin, offer parallel examples in their own peculiar way.
Apathy and Passivity
While some of the characters in The Seagull struggle with their frustrated desires, a few seem apathetically resigned to living their unfulfilled lives with only a token resistance to their fate. Examples in the play are Dorn and Sorin and to a lesser degree Trigorin. While to some extent these men protest against their fate, they do little or nothing to change it. Sorin is simply bored by his rural life, yet he evidences neither the ambition nor the gumption to alter it, even to take charge of his estate's affairs. Although the town life that he is so nostalgic about is but a short carriage ride away, he just listlessly slides along, unable to muster up the physical or mental energy to return to it. Dorn, despite Pauline's passion for him, seems oddly detached from those around him. He does little or nothing to encourage Pauline. He seems also to have given up the practice of medicine, perhaps because the profession has left him virtually penniless. He seems more a hesitant observer than a doer, even in such simple matters as medicating the ailing Sorin. Even Trigorin, a successful writer, is curiously apathetic about his fame. He would rather spend his time at the estate's lake fishing, away from the company of the other characters, engaging in his private reveries.
These characters help give the play its crepuscular feel, that unnerving sense of lassitude that marks Chekhov's greatest plays. As in the actual Russian society at the time, the people in these plays talk of necessary change but prove ineffectual when it comes to effecting it, drawn as they are into a morass of self-indulgence, languishing in memories of better moments in their lives while life simply slips away from them.
Artists and Society
To some extent, The Seagull is concerned with the artist's role in society. Chekhov, who throughout his career had been subjected to criticism for his unwillingness to use his pen for doctrinaire purposes, was profoundly interested in the matter of the writer's social or political responsibilities and obligations. He was also writing at a time when not just the content but also the form and technique of literary works were undergoing revolutionary change.
Through his various characters, Chekhov studies the conflict arising from the resistance of tradition to that change. Clearly, Madame Arkadina, a denizen of the existing theater, embodies the views of the establishment. Standing against her is her own son, Konstantine, who preaches the need for a new art, one of ‘‘new forms,’’ an art of forward-looking ideas, not one that merely entertains with timeworn conventions and hackneyed ideas that no longer have any social relevance. As his play indicates, the new art should have prophetic insights into humankind's destiny. His would be a theater light years away from the theater that, for example, Shamreyeff favors, a theater of brick bats and pratfalls.
The conflict in The Seagull is only studied, not resolved. Even though Trigorin argues that both the traditional theater and allied literary arts and new ones could coexist, the closemindedness of the adherents to the old and the new argue that such an accommodation can not be. Konstantine's art is dismissed by his unsympathetic mother as the ravings of his ‘‘bad temper,’’ while he sees in hers a mindless art that merely continues to pander to the bumptious fools making up the traditional theater audience. Meanwhile, as members of the artistic community spar on these issues, the philistines try to isolate them, dismissing them, as Nina's father and stepmother do, as immoral bohemians.
Love and Passion
The melancholy that pervades The Seagull arises from pangs of despised or unrequited love. In Chekhov's intricate design, most characters are both victim and tormentor, loving one of the others while rejecting the love of another character. That is, in the various triangular liaisons, each character loves another who either totally rejects that love or abuses it while having his or her own desires spurned by a third character. Konstantine Treplyov, for example, loves Nina, but she pursues Boris Trigorin, who ends up treating her very badly. Meanwhile, Masha pines after Konstantine, who only views her as a pest. She in turn is loved by Medvedenko, and although she does not love the schoolmaster, marries him as a convenience and then treats him shamelessly. Those not caught up in this sort of triangular love intrigue seem no better off—particularly, of course, Irina Arkadina, a selfish narcissist who is unable to face aging gracefully or find any satisfaction in her maternal role.
Identity: The Search for Self
The principal searcher in The Seagull is Konstantine, although in one way or another each of the main characters is trying to find an identity in a relationship that is fated to disappoint them all. Konstantine's quest is artistic. He seeks ‘‘new forms,’’ to break with a conventional theater epitomized by his mother, the highly successful actress. Although Konstantine's desire for Nina plays a part in his frustrations, his mother's scoffing dismissal of his work and the acclaim afforded Boris Trigorin, whom he deems unworthy, are also devastating influences. When he finds his own work growing conventional, Treplyov despairs and, rejected again by Nina, shoots himself for a second time.
Other characters are caught in situations that prevent an inner peace or self-fulfilling relationship with another figure. For example, both Masha and her mother, Pauline, look to Dorn to help them alleviate their disquietude, to provide something lacking in their lives. Masha treats him as a surrogate father, confiding her feelings in him, while Pauline, unhappy with her husband, tries to inflame a passion in him for her. Dorn remains too detached, growing passionate only in his approval of Konstantine's artistic efforts to produce his ‘‘new forms.’’ Others are similarly frustrated—Sorin, for example, by country life, which he finds tedious, or Trigorin, who seems to find no satisfaction in his success as a writer.
Success and Failure
In The Seagull, those who succeed in one sense invariably fail in another. In material terms, the most successful characters are Irina Arkadina and her companion, Boris Trigorin. She is an acclaimed actress, he a renowned writer. Both seem to sacrifice much of their essential decency to their success, however. Fearful of what the loss of beauty might do for her career, Irina is much too self-centered to respond to the needs of her son Konstantine. As a reminder that she is growing old, something that she cannot face, he simply annoys and threatens her. Meanwhile, Trigorin is so jaded by his success that he has grown cynical and desultory. He treats the adoring Nina badly, abandoning her when she badly needs his support.
In the case of Konstantine, a growing success has as an ironic consequence, for the acclaim makes him feel that he has somehow sold out his ideals, that he has failed to bring about the revolutionary change needed to develop ''new forms'' in writing. His publication of a story in the same magazine that contains one by Boris Trigorin distresses him, and in the play's last act, along with Nina's final rejection, it leads to his depression and second attempt at suicide.
Time is the main enemy in The Seagull. In fact, it may be viewed as the play's principal antagonist. It is relentless and erosive, never a healing influence, as it is, for example, in a play like Shakespeare's Winter's Tale. Its effect pervades the lives of all the characters, and, because that is basically true to life, it is a defining element of Chekhov's realism.
The most devastating impact of its passage is seen between the third and fourth acts, when two years elapse. Nothing works out for the better, or at least what the various characters believe is the better. Sorin grows older and weaker. Irina Arkadina's beauty continues to fade. Nina's acting career goes nowhere. Perhaps worse yet, other things remain the same. If it is not betrayed, love merely languishes in its hopelessness, molding like some buds that rot without ever bearing fruit. Masha marries her schoolmaster, Semyon Medvedenko, and bears him a child but is neither a loving wife nor mother, still suffering from a misguided passion for Konstantine, who, in turn, still pines for Nina. Time, merely implacable, works to no one's advantage in The Seagull.
The Seagull reflects Chekhov's aesthetic concern with his art. Several of the characters in the play are to some degree interested in the nature and theory of literary and dramatic arts. Two of them, Boris Trigorin and Konstantine Treplyov, are writers, while two others, Irina Arkadina and Nina Zaryechny, are actresses. Others, like Dorn and Shamreyeff, offer critical judgments on these arts. In fact, Sorin's estate serves as a kind of retreat for artists and intellectuals, and much of the play's dialogue, rich with allusions and topical references, concerns artistic matters. From the vantage point of Nina's puritanical father and stepmother, who remain offstage, those who gather there are self-indulgent and immoral. Nina's parent's view reflects the traditional attitudes still dominant in Russia at the time.