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.
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