Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
Pavlovich Chekhov described The Sea Gull as "a comedy in four acts."
However, modern interpreters of the play usually identify it as a tragedy
or tragicomedy. The latter term seems appropriate. The drama centers on
bored, restless, or dysfunctional characters who chase elusive quarries,
such as requited love, artistic success, fame, and contentment.
and First Performance
wrote The Sea Gull in 1895. The audience booed it at its first performance
on October 17, 1896, at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg but
acclaimed it as a triumph at its debut at the Moscow Art Theater on December
17, 1898. Today, the play enjoys a reputation as one of the best Russian
stage dramas ever written.
Sea Gull is
set in the late nineteenth century not far from Moscow at an isolated country
estate with a farm. The first three acts take place play opens in the summer
of one year and ends in the fall two years later.
Note: Because the Russian
alphabet differs from the English alphabet, the spelling of the names of
the characters listed below may differ from the spelling of the names in
your copy of The Sea Gull. For example, Pyotr may appear
as Peter in some translations, Konstantin as Constantine,
Yevgeny as Eugene, Polina as Paulina, and Yakov
Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina:
Famous actress in her early forties. Self-centered, she talks constantly
about her acting triumphs and her looks. She tends to criticize anyone
who threatens to upstage her in any way.
son of Irina. An aspiring writer, he is highly sensitive to criticism of
from his mother, who describes a play he wrote as "decadent rubbish." He
is desperately in love with a neighbor, Nina Mikhailovna Zarechnaya. But
she does not return his love.
Pyotr Nikolayevich Sorin:
Brother of Irina and owner of a country estate and farm. He is a retired
lawyer in his sixties who suffers from rheumatism.
Boris Alexeyevich Trigorin:
Famous novelist and romantic companion of Irina.
Nina Mikhailovna Zarechnaya:
Daughter of a wealthy landowner who lives near Sorin. She is an aspiring
actress. Nina is Konstantin's girlfriend until she meets Trigorin. Dazzled
by his image as a famous writer, she becomes infatuated with him and meets
him in Moscow.
Yevgeny Sergeyevich Dorn:
Physician and friend of Sorin and his relations.
Ilya Afanasyevich Shamrayev:
Retired army lieutenant and tyrannical manager of Sorin's estate.
Wife of Ilya. She despises her husband and carries on a secret affair with
Masha: Daughter of
Ilya and Polina. She loves Konstantin, but he pays her no attention.
Semyon Semyonovich Medvedenko:
Schoolteacher who loves Masha.
Yakov: Workman on
tone of the play is objective and unsentimental, with an undercurrent of
the park on a country estate with a nearby lake, several men are completing
work on a makeshift stage for amateur theatricals while Semyon Medvedenko
returns from a walk with Masha, the daughter of the managers of the estate—Ilya
Shamrayev and his wife, Polina.
who is in love with Masha, asks her why she always wears black. She replies
that the hue matches her unhappy life. Semyon says he does not wear black
even though he must support his mother, two sisters, and little brother
on his schoolmaster's salary of only twenty-three rubles a month. Her father,
on the other hand, makes a good living. Masha says happiness does not depend
on how much money a person has. When Semyon reminds her that he loves her,
Masha says she “is touched” but cannot return his love. Pyotr Sorin, the
owner of the estate, approaches with Konstantin Treplyov, who has written
a play to be performed on the makeshift stage. It is to star the young
lady Konstantin loves, Nina Zarechnaya,
who lives nearby.
asks Masha to tell her father to leave Sorin's watchdog dog unchained at
night so that it will not howl. The noise disturbs the sleep of his sister,
the famous actress Irina Arkadina (Konstantin's mother). Masha says Sorin
will have to speak directly to her father, and she and Semyon walk off.
says the stage looks professional and notes that the curtain will rise
when the moon does, about eight thirty. Nina has not yet arrived for the
performance, prompting him to note that her father and stepmother guard
her movements so closely that it is as if she lives in a prison. Sorin
then asks why Irina is in an ill temper. Because, says Treplyov, it is
Nina—not Irina—who is acting in the play. As a professional actress, Irina
thrives on attention, especially the praise she receives for her performances
in La Dame aux camélias
(The Lady of the Camellias). But she is out in the country now,
and her only opportunity to act is in the role that Nina has. Consequently,
she hates everything about the play.
irked by his mother's behavior, then vents several complaints against her.
She is stingy even though she has a sizable bank out, he says. Moreover,
his presence reminds her that he is already twenty-five and she is forty-three.
Konstantin dislikes the type of drama that his mother prefers, saying it
is “merely the vehicle of convention and prejudice.” When playwrights continue
to present “the same old stuff,” he says, “I must needs run from it.”
asks what Boris Trigorin, a writer, is like. Trigorin and Irina are lovers.
Konstantin says Trigorin, a man not yet forty, has good manners and a melancholy
disposition. Although his stories are pleasing to read, Konstantin says,
he is not on a par with Tolstoy or Zola.
Sorin says he always wanted to do two things with his life: marry and write.
But he has done neither.
Nina arrives. Konstantin greets her as “my enchantress.” She says she was
afraid her father would prevent her from leaving, but she went out after
he and her stepmother decided to take drive. Nina says her father and stepmother
have made it clear that they do not want her to visit the Sorin estate.
call this place Bohemia and are afraid I shall become an actress,” she
says. “But this lake attracts me as it does the gulls. My heart is full
kiss and vow their love for each other. Yakov, one of the workmen, tells
them the stage is ready. Nina is nervous, not because she will be acting
before Konstantin's mother but before the famous writer Trigorin. She tells
Konstantin that his play is difficult to act because there are no “living
characters” in it and because there is not much action. He replies that
life must be presented as it is.
Konstantin and Nina go onto the stage, Polina and Doctor Yevgeny Dorn appear.
Polina notes that Irina seemed to find him charming.
men are all ready to go down on your knees to an actress, all of you.”
He counters that artists deserve the attention they get. And, if he attracts
women, he says, the reason is that he is the only good doctor in the region.
Polina takes him by the hand, saying, “Dearest!”
arrives with her brother, Sorin. With them are Trigorin, Ilya Shamrayev,
Semyon, and Masha. Konstantin comes forth to announce the beginning of
the play. But as Nina recites the opening lines, Irina interrupts the performance,
saying, “What decadent rubbish is this?” When she continues to kibbitz,
Konstantin angrily halts the performance and storms off.
Nina come off the stage, Sorin praises her brief performance with bravos.
Irina also offers praise, saying that she has a duty to become an actress.
She introduces her to Trigorin. He says he could not understand the play
but admired Nina's acting and thought the set, with the lake in the background,
Nina leaves, Irina observes, “They say that her mother left the whole of
an immense fortune to her husband, and now the child is penniless because
the father has already willed everything away to his second wife. It is
pitiful.” Dorn says her father is “a perfect beast.”
hears the dog howling and asks Ilya to unchain it. But the latter says
he must keep it chained to guard the millet granary against a break-in
decides to go inside. On the way, Dorn sees Konstantin coming out, compliments
him on the play—at least what he heard of it—and urges him to continue
writing. Grateful, Konstantin embraces him. Masha comes out and tells Konstantin
his mother wants him to come in. But he hurries off in pursuit of Nina.
Masha then tells the physician she wants to confide in him, something that
she feels uncomfortable doing with her father. When he asks what her concern
is, she says she is very miserable, for she is in love with Konstantin.
is noon on a hot day. In front of Sorin's house, with the lake on one side
reflecting the sun, Irina, Doctor Dorn, and Masha are sitting on a bench
chatting. Irina is bragging about how youthful and agile she is for her
age while Masha talks about how miserable she is. Sorin and Nina join the
group and Semyon pulls up a chair. Nina is in high spirits, for her father
and mother have gone away for three days, leaving her to do as she pleases.
Irina tells the group that she is worried about Konstantin, who seems depressed
and spends a lot of time alone at the lake.
heart is heavy,” Masha says.
dozes off, and Irina says the sixty-five-year old ought to do something
for his health—go to a spa, for example. Semyon says he should quit smoking,
and Dorn agrees. Sorin rejects Semyon's advice, saying he has never really
lived—during or after he put in twenty-eight years in the Department of
Justice. Now he wants to live. Drinking wine and smoking cigars help him
do that. When Masha goes inside, the conversation turns to country life
vs city life. Irina prefers the excitement of the city, and Nina says she
understands her point of view. Sorin, too, likes city life. Irina is planning
to go to Moscow that very day, but Ilya comes in to inform her that the
workers will be hauling rye and that no horses will be available to take
her to the train station.
do not know, Madam, what it is to run a farm,” he says.
Angry, Irina orders him to provide a carriage for the trip. Ilya loses
his temper, resigns his position, and walks away. Irina then says she is
treated this way every summer and will not sojourn at the estate in the
future. She goes into the house, followed by Trigorin with a fishing rod
is angry now, and Nina tells Polina that Ilya cannot treat a famous actress
that way. Sorin and Nina go in to ask Irina to stay. Dorn predicts that
“old Granny” Sorin will kowtow to Ilya and ask him to keep his job. Polina
tells Dorn that she can no longer brook Ilya's rough ways. She asks him
to declare publicly that they love each other. But Dorn says it is too
late for him to make changes in his life. Nina comes out and tells them
that Irina is crying and Sorin is having an asthma attack.
goes into the house. When Nina sees Irina and Trigorin, she is surprised
that Trigorin rejoices over some minnows he caught and that Irina cries
and flies into a passion. Nina thought famous people were above all that.
Konstantin approaches Nina with dead sea gull and a gun. Laying the bird
before her, he says, “So shall I soon end my own life.” In recent days,
he says, she has ignored him. Apparently, she does not want him around.
He thinks her behavior is due to the failure of his play, which he has
burned—every last page.
have no faith in my powers,” he says. “You think me commonplace and worthless.”
appears. He is reading a book.
Konstantin goes away, Trigorin says he is leaving and regrets that he probably
will not be seeing Nina again. She asks him how it feels to be famous.
He replies that he does not feel it in any special way. If critics praise
him, he is happy. If they do not, he is “out of sorts for the next two
days.” When she praises him as one in a million, he thanks her but says
praise means little to him. What drives him, he says, is writing. He must
write, write, write. And even when he is not writing, he sees images—the
shape of a cloud, for example—that he carries with him for the next time
he writes. Writing is an all-consuming profession, he says. When he was
young trying to break in, it was agony. But it is a pleasure when he finishes
a book and reads the proofs. However, after the book is in print, he has
regrets about it. Then readers say it is clever or lovely, but not as good
as the writing of Tolstoy or Turgenev.
the bliss of being a writer or an actress,” she replies, “I could endure
want, and disillusionment, and the hatred of my friends, and the pangs
of my own dissatisfaction with myself.”
notices the dead sea gull, and Nina tells him Konstantin shot it. Trigorin
then writes something in a small book he carries in a pocket. When Nina
asks him what he wrote, he says, "An idea for a short story. A young girl
grows up on the shores of a lake, as you have. She loves the lake as the
gulls do, and is as happy and free as they. But a man sees her who chances
to come that way, and he destroys her out of idleness, as this gull here
has been destroyed."
calls out and tells Trigorin she has decided to delay their return to Moscow.
the dining room a week later, packed trunks and boxes sit on the floor
awaiting the departure of Trigorin and Nina for Moscow. While Trigorin
is eating breakfast, Masha tells him that she plans to marry Semyon to
rid herself of her love for Konstantin, explaining that the responsibilities
of marriage will help her forget the past. Both of them are drinking. Masha
says she is sorry to see him go and asks him to stay. But he says Irina
would not hear of it. For one thing, he says, Konstantin tried to commit
suicide and then challenged him to a duel—for what reason Trigorin does
not know. He does mention that Konstantin is always talking about a new
form of art and downgrading traditional art.
Nina enters the room, Masha says good-bye to Trigorin and leaves. Yakov
passes through with a trunk. Nina then gives Trigorin a medallion to remember
her by. His initials are engraved on one side and the title of one of his
books, along with page numbers and line numbers, are on the other. He says
he will always remember her. She asks to meet with him briefly before he
goes. She leaves the room and a moment later Irina and Sorin enter. Yakov
follows, busy with the baggage. Sorin wants to go with her to Moscow, but
Irina tells him his rheumatism would make it difficult for him to travel.
Besides, she wants him to keep an eye on Konstantin. She thinks he shot
himself because he was jealous of Trigorin.
sooner I take Trigorin away, the better,” she says.
says there was another reason for Konstantin's attempted suicide. The youth
is talented, he says, but he is living isolated in the country. He lacks
money, has no job, and feels useless. Being dependent on others wounds
his pride. Irina calls him “a misery to me.” Sorin suggests that she give
Konstantin money for new clothes and perhaps a trip abroad. Irina says
she needs her money to support her profession as an actress.
feels faint and staggers. When Irina calls for help, Konstantin and Semyon
come in. But Sorin says his spell has ended. Konstantin tells his mother
not to worry. Such spells are frequent now, he says, but are not dangerous.
At Konstantin's suggestion, Sorin decides to lie down but says he still
wants to go to Moscow. Semyon goes out with him.
then asks his mother to change the bandage covering the gunshot wound on
his head. While applying a new bandage, she asks him never again to attempt
suicide. He promises that he will not and says he did so only in a moment
of “insane despair.” He also tells her he loves her and asks why she allows
Trigorin to control her. She defends Trigorin as a noble man. Konstantin
then criticizes him as a coward who decides to run off when challenged
to a duel. Irina says she herself asked him to leave. Konstantin continues
to criticize him, and she continues to defend him. Then she turns on him,
saying, “You envy him. There is nothing left for people with no talent
and mighty pretensions to do but to criticise those who are really gifted.”
Konstantin tears off the bandage and calls her and Trigorin “slaves of
convention.” She calls him decadent. He says she acts in “dish-water
plays.” She says he cannot even write a trashy piece for a music hall.
When he begins to cry, she kisses him and asks for forgiveness. Then he
tells her he has “lost everything under heaven”—meaning Nina. She does
not love him, and he will not be able to write. She says all his trouble
comes in and—not wishing to cause further trouble—Konstantin picks up his
bandage and leaves the room. Trigorin is reading the passage in the book
that Nina was referring to on the medallion engraving: “If at any time
you have need of my life, come and take it.”
thinks for a moment, then tells Irina that he wants to stay. She knows
you so much in love?”
am irresistibly impelled toward her,” he says. Then he asks Irina to release
refuses. He tells her he was too busy to love when he was younger. Now
he wants to seize love when he has the opportunity. Irina pleads with him,
saying her love for him is “the last chapter of my life.” After further
pleading from her, he agrees to go with her to Moscow.
comes in to inform them that a carriage is ready to take them to the train
station. Sorin comes in, dressed in a long coat and ready to travel. They
say their good-byes to Semyon, Ilya, Yakov, and the cook and then go out.
A moment later, Trigorin returns to look for his cane. Nina enters. She
tells him that she has decided to go to Moscow to pursue a stage career.
am deserting my father and abandoning everything,” she says.
tells her to go to the Hotel Slavianski Bazar and inform him when she arrives.
He will be at the Grosholski House.
bliss to think that I shall see you again so soon,” he says. They kiss.
years pass. It is autumn. Irina has gone to the train station to pick up
Trigorin, who is to arrive soon from Moscow. Masha looks for Konstantin
in a sitting room converted into a writer's study, but no one is there.
It is a dark, stormy evening. Semyon asks her to go home with him, for
their baby must be hungry. But she says Matriona will feed it. She also
takes the opportunity to say that she is getting tired of hearing him constantly
talk about home and the baby. When he asks whether she will be home the
next day, she says yes.
and Polina come in with bedding. The latter says Sorin plans to sleep in
Konstantin's room. Masha makes up the divan as a bed. After Semyon says
good-bye to Masha and her mother, Polina compliments Konstantin on his
writing, noting that magazines pay him handsomely for his stories. She
then says, “Be a little nice to my Masha.”
gets up and leaves the room. Masha thinks her mother's comment irked him,
and she mildly reproves her. But Polina says she understands how Masha
feels and sympathizes with her. Masha replies that Semyon is expected to
get a position in another school district. After they move, she says, “I
shall tear my passion out by the root.”
and Dorn wheel in Sorin. When Masha says she thought Semyon was going home,
he says no one would lend him a horse. Masha whispers to herself, “Would
I might never see your face again!”
comes in and sits near Sorin. Semyon asks Dorn which of the cities he liked
the best when he was on a trip. Genoa, Dorn says, because of the crowded
streets that make him feel as if he is part of “a great world spirit.”
asks about Nina, saying he heard she has led an unusual life. After she
became involved with Trigorin, Konstantin says, she had his child. It died.
Trigorin eventually tired of her and went back to Irina. Nina did get a
chance to pursue an acting career, debuting at the Summer Theatre in Moscow
and going on a tour. But she was largely a failure because of a faulty
delivery and crude gesturing, says Konstantin, who attended her performances.
He tried to see her, but she refused to receive him. However, she does
write to him now that he is back at the estate. Her letters are warm and
friendly, but he says he can tell she is very unhappy. She always signs
her letters as “The Sea Gull.” He surprises Dorn when he tells him that
she is in the area now—at an inn in a nearby village. Her father and stepmother
have disowned her, he says, and will not let her come home. While out walking,
Semyon encountered her. She told him she would be visiting the estate.
Konstantin doubts, however, that she will come.
comes in with Trigorin, followed by Ilya. Trigorin gives Konstantin a magazine
containing his most recent story, saying “everyone in Moscow and St. Petersburg
is interested in you. . . .” However, no one really knows anything about
him, Trigorin says, because he always writes under a pseudonym. Masha asks
her father to provide a horse for Semyon, but he says none is available.
Semyon decides to walk the six miles home.
Masha, Dorn, Irina, Trigorin, and Polina sit down at a card table to play
lotto. Konstantin excuses himself. Irina remarks about the rousing reception
she received from students for a performance in Kharkov. When the lotto
players begin their game, they hear Konstantin playing soulful music on
the piano. Polina says it is a sign that he is sad. Ilya suggests a reason
for his sadness: "He has been severely criticized in the newspapers.”
says Konstantin's writing is vague and that he has failed to make any of
his characters come to life. Dorn says he sees talent in Konstantin even
though his writing seems too impressionistic. When he asks Irina what she
thinks of Konstantin's writing, she says she has never had the time to
read any of his stories. Konstantin enters and sits at his writing table.
then tells Trigorin that he has something for him—the sea gull that he
asked to have stuffed. Trigorin does not remember making the request. He
wins the game and Irina tells everyone to come to supper. Konstantin says
he is not hungry.
Konstantin sits before a passage of his latest story and now realizes that
good writing is not a matter of whether it exhibits a new form or takes
on a traditional form. What matters is whether it comes from the heart.
Nina knocks on the window, and Konstantin opens the door to the garden
to let her in, overjoyed to see her. They sit down. She takes his hand
and says, “You are an author now, and I am an actress. We have both been
sucked into the whirlpool.”
says she must travel to Eltz in the morning on a third-class train, sitting
among peasants, for a winter-long acting engagement. He tells her how much
he loves her and begs her to stay or to allow him to go with her. She gets
up, saying her carriage is waiting to take her back to the village. When
she hears talking in the next room, she looks through the keyhole and sees
Trigorin. She says he laughed at her dreams, and she became depressed.
Before her child died, taking care of it heavily burdened her, and she
acted her parts without spirit. Now, however, she acts with enthusiasm
and believes she performs superbly. She says she now realizes that what
is important in life is “the strength to endure.”
says he has not yet found his way, as she has. He is still confused, lost.
Nina says, “So she [Irina] has brought him [Trigorin] back with her.” Then
she says she loves Trigorin “passionately, to despair.” She embraces Konstantin
and runs out. Konstantin tears up the manuscripts on his desk and exits
through a door on the right just as Dorn comes in from the dining room
through a door on the left. The others follow. They all seat themselves
at the card table. They hear what sounds like a gunshot. Dorn investigates
and returns, saying that one of his flasks of ether exploded. Irina is
relieved. Dorn then takes Trigorin aside and tells him that he must take
Irina away from the estate. “Konstantin,” he says, “has shot himself.”
is in conflict with his mother, who continually criticizes him. He in turn
criticizes her not only for her personal faults but also for her preference
for traditional theater. Konstantin is an advocate of new art forms. But
his championing of "new theater" may be, in part, an expression of rebellion
against his mother. Her criticism of him may, in turn, spring from a fear
that he will one day achieve recognition as a writer that will eclipse
hers as an actress.
is also in conflict with Trigorin—perhaps
because he is jealous of Trigorin's writing success and perhaps because
he resents the fact that his mother pays more attention to Trigorin than
to him. Konstantin also suffers an
internal conflict because of Nina's
rejection of him. This unrequited love and his struggle as a writer ultimately
lead to his suicide.
is in conflict with her parents, who disown her. She is also in conflict
with herself, unwittingly, for she fails to recognize that her love for
the theater and for Trigorin are really romantic infatuations.
is in conflict with her husband, Ilya, and with Dorn's refusal to acknowledge
publicly his love for her. Sorin in in conflict with the boredom he endures
as a retired owner of an isolated country estate. He is also in conflict
with Ilya, who manages the estate but sometimes refuses to follow orders.
suffers a psychological conflict because of her unrequited love for Konstantin.
After she marries Semyon, she continues to love Konstantin and comes in
conflict with her husband and domestic life.
climax of the play is Nina's disclosure to Konstantin that she still loves
Trigorin (Act 4). This news, along with Konstantin's dissatisfaction with
his career as a writer, causes Konstantin to commit suicide. When Dorn
discovers the body, he informs Trigorin but not Konstantin's mother, Irina.
The play ends. However, one can imagine how Irina would react upon learning
of Konstantin's death. She would cry hysterically (or histrionically),
grieve for what the public deems a proper period of time, then go on with
her life happy to be relieved of the burden of a weirdly idealistic son
whose published work—though raw and spare of critical praise—threatened
her position as the center of attention at Sorin's estate. Masha, of course,
would be devastated and ruminate over what could have been.
desires Nina's love. He also desires public recognition for himself as
an accomplished writer. He gets neither. Nina desires Trigorin's love and
public recognition for herself as a superior actress. She gets neither.
Konstantin and Nina are not the only ones with unfulfilled desires. Masha
wants Konstantin but ends up in a bad marriage with Semyon. For consolation,
she turns to alcohol.
a conversation with Dorn, Pyotr Sorin, a retired lawyer, speaks of four
am going to give Constantine an idea for a story. It shall be called "The
Man Who Wished—L'Homme
qui a voulu." When I was young, I wished to become an author; I failed.
I wished to be an orator; I speak abominably, [exciting himself] with my
eternal "and all, and all," dragging each sentence on and on until I sometimes
break out into a sweat all over. I wished to marry, and I didn't; I wished
to live in the city, and here I am ending my days in the country, and all.
desires Dorn as a husband and wants him to claim her openly. Her wishes,
too, go unfulfilled.
wants recognition as one of Russia's greatest writers. But he admits to
Nina that despite all his attention his craft his writing does not measure
up to that of Tolstoy or Turgenev. “To my dying day,” he says, “I shall
hear people say: '[Trigorin's writing] is clever and pretty; clever and
pretty,' and nothing more; and when I am gone, those that knew me will
say as they pass my grave: 'Here lies Trigorin, a clever writer, but he
was not as good as Turgenev.' "
self-absorbed Irina desperately wants recognition as a great actress, but
her constant reminders of her acting triumphs only deepen the playgoer's
suspicion that she is not the actress that she thinks she is.
says life has satisfied him, but in the same sentence he reveals an unfulfilled
desire to know the joy of artistic endeavor.
have led a quiet life, as you know, and am a contented man, but if I should
ever experience the exaltation that an artist feels during his moments
of creation, I think I should spurn this material envelope of my soul and
everything connected with it, and should soar away into heights above this
wants to control others, as indicated by his refusal to grant the wish
of his own employer, Sorin, to unchain the dogs and his refusal to grant
the request of Sorin's sister, Irina, for a carriage to take her to the
train station. Yet Ilya cannot even control his own wife, who is having
an adulterous affair with Dorn.
wants Masha's love. He gets Masha, but not her love.
gives us glimpses of the artistic temperament and the modus operandi of
writers and actors.
example, Irina—like many actresses—centers almost all her energies on her
looks, her dress, her theater performances. She requires constant attention
to feed her enormous ego and reserves all of her considerable financial
assets for the furtherance of her career. Konstantin says of her:
mother is a psychological curiosity. Without doubt brilliant and talented,
capable of sobbing over a novel, of reciting all Nekrasov's poetry by heart,
and of nursing the sick like an angel of heaven, you should see what happens
if any one begins praising Duse to her! She alone must be praised and written
about, raved over, her marvellous acting in La
Dame aux camélias (The
Lady of the Camellias)
extolled to the skies.
comes across as a reasonable man, but a close reading of the play reveals
him as cold-hearted and unprincipled when it comes to using others to advance
his agenda. While talking with Nina, he sees the dead seagull and writes
something in the notebook he always carries with him. When Nina asks him
what he wrote, he says,
idea for a short story. A young girl grows up on the shores of a lake,
as you have. She loves the lake as the gulls do, and is as happy and free
as they. But a man sees her who chances to come that way, and he destroys
her out of idleness, as this gull here has been destroyed.
runs off to meet him in Moscow and bears him a child, which dies. Trigorin,
bored with her, leaves her and goes back to Irina. Thus, what he wrote
in his notebook comes true; he has tested his idea for a short story and,
no longer needing Nina, abandons her. Apparently, he is among those who
believe that writers enjoy the privilege of ignoring morality if their
behavior serves an artistic purpose.
of course, is a hopeless romantic. She pursues an acting career to be part
of the world of Irina and Trigorin, to recite the lines of a play centering
on love, and to receive the glory of glories—fame. She tells Trigorin,
"For the bliss of being a writer or an actress I could endure want, and
disillusionment, and the hatred of my friends, and the pangs of my own
dissatisfaction with myself; but I should demand in return fame, real,
loves Nina, but she runs off with Trigorin. Masha loves Konstantin, but
he exhibits no interest in her. Nina loves Trigorin, but he rejects her
after she bears his child.
mother alienates him with her bitter criticism of him and her refusal to
help him financially or otherwise. She pays more attention to Trigorin.
Konstantin, however, does little to remedy his situation. Sorin aptly sums
up Konstantin's sense of alienation when he says, "Here is a clever young
chap living in the depths of the country, without money or position, with
no future ahead of him, and with nothing to do. He is ashamed and afraid
of being so idle. I am devoted to him and he is fond of me, but nevertheless
he feels that he is useless here, that he is little more than a dependent
in this house."
himself speaks out about how he feels when he tells Sorin, "What could
be more intolerable and foolish than my position, Uncle, when I find myself
the only nonentity among a crowd of her guests, all celebrated authors
and artists? I feel that they only endure me because I am her son. Personally
I am nothing, nobody" (Act 1).
also alienate other characters. Sorin never married and lives on a remote
estate. Masha pines for Konstantin's love. When he does not return it,
she marries Semyon and becomes psychologically estranged from him. Nina
is alone at the end of the play after her child dies, Trigorin abandons
her, and her parents disown her.
major characters attempt to escape their uneventful lives in various ways.
Konstantin writes. Nina runs off to Moscow to find glorious romance and
fame as an actress. Polina escapes her marriage to Ilya by becoming an
adulteress with Dorin. Masha drinks. Sorin, old and unmarried, tries life
in the city with Irina and Trigorin. Trigorin leaves Nina after fathering
her child, which died.
Sea Gull: Symbol of Death
upon a time, all the main characters in the play were children—happy little
fledglings waiting to glide into a golden future, like the sea gull. But
when they developed wings and soared across the sky, they could not support
the weight of their ambitions, compulsions, hopes, and desires. And they
fell to the ground—to the tedium, disappointments, and broken dreams of
everyday life. They became, in a sense, dead sea gulls—like the one Konstantin
shot that was later stuffed.
is the first character to exhibit and discuss her “death.” She wears black
all the time. When Semyon asks her why, she says she is in mourning for
her life. It is an unhappy, empty life that drives her to alcohol. Later,
she marries Semyon “to deaden the memories of the past,” she tells Trigorin.
for Konstantin, he says the sea gull represents what he will soon become—dead.
Already, he labors in a world of the dead, for—as Nina tells him—there
are “no living characters” in the play he wrote for a performance in front
of Sorin's home. In assessing Konstantin's writing, Trigorin later says
the same thing: “There is an odd vagueness about his writings that sometimes
verges on delirium. He has never created a single living character.”
opening passage of the play, recited by Nina, dwells on death:
All men and beasts,
lions, eagles, and quails, horned stags, geese, spiders, silent fish that
inhabit the waves, starfish from the sea, and creatures invisible to the
one word, life—all,
all life, completing the dreary round imposed upon it, has died out at
last. A thousand years have passed since the earth last bore a living creature
on her breast, and the unhappy moon now lights her lamp in vain. No longer
are the cries of storks heard in the meadows, or the drone of beetles in
the groves of limes. All is cold, cold. All is void, void,
decides to join his characters when he shoots himself. But he botches the
job, then plods on. Nina, meanwhile, runs off with Trigorin, infatuated
with his persona as a great writer. But after she bears him a child that
dies, he becomes bored with her and abandons her. She becomes one of the
living dead and even signs her letters to Konstantin as “The Sea Gull.”
Trigorin? He is callous, unfeeling, "dead" to the sensitivities of others—as
his seduction and abandonment of Nina indicates. In addition, like Konstantin,
he has trouble bringing the principals in his books to life. He tells Nina,
“The young girls in my books are seldom living characters.” Looking ahead
to his death and to what posterity will think of him, he also tells her,
“When I am gone, those that knew me will say as they pass my grave: 'Here
lies Trigorin, a clever writer, but he was not as good as Turgenev.' "
and ailing and presumably near death—laments the fact that he never really
lived when he was younger. He tells Dorn, "It is easy for you to condemn
smoking and drinking; you have known what life is, but what about me? I
have served in the Department of Justice for twenty-eight years, but I
have never lived, I have never had any experiences.”
Sea Gull as a Comedy
entitled his play The Sea Gull: a Comedy in Four Acts. But how could
a play so cheerless—a play that ends with a suicide—be termed a comedy?
It may be that Chekhov, with a devilish smile, was satirizing and parodying
literary works characterized by sentimentality, requited love, the triumph
of underdogs, and happy endings.
that romance never finds wings in the play. Masha loves Konstantin, but
he loves Nina. Nina runs off with Trigorin—who
has been having an affair with Irina—but he abandons Nina after she bears
his child. Then he resumes his affair with Irina. Semyon loves Masha, but
Masha still loves Konstanin. She marries Semyon anyway as a way to forget
Konstantin, but she ends up loathing Semyon and still loving Konstantin.
Polina despises her husband, Ilya, and becomes Dorn's lover. When they
are alone in the play for the first time, she tells him, "It is getting
damp. Go back and put on your galoshes."
The dialogue between Konstantin
and Nina is no less scintillating. To wit:
Why does it look so dark?
And then there is this romantic
exchange between Konstantin and Nina
is evening; everything looks dark now.
What if I were to follow you, Nina? I shall stand in your garden all night
with my eyes on your window.
then tries something dramatic: He shoots a sea gull, lays it at Nina's
feet, and says, "So shall I soon end my life." Nina tells him, "You have
grown so irritable lately." Trigorin approaches reading a book, and Konstantin
says, "You feel the warmth of that sun [Trigorin] already, you smile, your
eyes melt and glow liquid in its rays." He then leaves and later shoots
himself. But he botches the job and ends up only with a bandage on his
NINA That would
be impossible; the watchman would see you, and Treasure is not used to
you yet, and would bark.
Ilya manages Sorin's estate like a tyrant. He refuses to unchain the loudmouth
watchdog, refuses to provide a carriage for Irina to ride to the train
station, and refuses to provide Semyon a horse for a ride home. Hapless
Sorin allows him to run the estate like Napoleon.
to Sorin himself, he becomes so enfeebled by the fourth act that he must
sit in a wheelchair. The dialogue suggests that he will soon die, perhaps
with his saddened friends attending him at his bedside. But he lives! Nina
ends up traveling to third-rate theaters to perform as an actress.
and Direct References
are examples allusions and direct references in The Sea Gull.
Agamemnon: In ancient
Greek legend, King of Mycenae and general of the Greek army during the
the Great (356-323 BC) of Macedonia. One of the greatest military leaders
in history. During his conquests, he spread the Greek culture to Africa
Caesar: Julius Caesar
(100-44 BC), the great Roman general, statesman, and dictator.
La Dame aux camélias
(The Lady of the Camellias): French novel of love by Alexandre Dumas
fils (1824-1895). Dumas adapted it for the stage, and Italian composer
Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave adapted it as an opera
entitled La Traviata.
Latin phrase. In full: de gustibus non es disputandum. Loose translation:
It is a matter of personal taste and not open for dispute.
Jove: In ancient
mythology, the Roman name for Zeus, king of the Olympian gods.
Maupassant: Guy de
Maupassant (1850-1893), one of France's greatest writers of short stories.
Bonaparte (1769-1821), French general, consul, and emperor.
Alexeyevich Nekrasov (1821-1871), Russian poet who wrote dramatic monologues
and other types of poetry.
Rusalka: (1) In Slavic
mythology, a female spirit or nymph that dwelled in a lake; (2) fairy tale
by Karel Jaromír Erben (1811-1870) and Božena Nemcová (1820-1862).
In Act 3, Semyon poses a riddle to Sorin. Semyon says, "Do you know this
riddle? [What walks] on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon,
and on three legs in the evening?" Semyon is alluding to the riddle of
the Sphinx in ancient Greek mythology. It tells of an incident involving
Oedipus, son of the late king of Thebes. While approaching the city, Oedipus
encounters the Sphinx, a winged lion with the head of a woman. The grotesque
creature has killed many Thebans because they could not answer her riddle.
When Oedipus approaches the Sphinx, the beast poses the riddle. Oedipus,
quick of mind, spits back the right answer: man. Here is the explanation:
As an infant in the morning of life, a human being crawls on all fours;
as an adult in the midday of life, he walks upright on two legs; as an
old man in the evening of life, he walks on three legs, including a cane.
Surprised and outraged, the Sphinx kills herself. Jubilant Thebans then
offer Oedipus the throne of Thebes.
Tolstoy: Leo Tolstoy
(1828-1910), great Russian novelist who wrote such works as War and
Peace and The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
Turgenev: Ivan Sergeyevich
Turgenev (1818-1883), Russian novelist and writer of short stories. His
novel Fathers and Sons is considered one of the greatest novels
of the nineteenth century.
Zola: Emile Zola
((1840-1902), prominent French novelist.
admired Shakespeare. He alludes to the great English playwright several
times in the play. In the first act, Irina recites the following lines
to her son, Konstantin:
Thou turn’st mine
eyes into my very soul;
Shakespeare's play, Gertrude speaks these lines to her son, Hamlet, when
he berates her for marrying the villainous Claudius a short time after
the death of her first husband. The allusion is apt, for Konstantin—like
his mother for her choice of a man. In Irina's case, it is Boris Trigorin.
Konstantin tells Sorin, “I think she leads a stupid life. She always has
this man of letters [Trigorin] of hers on her mind.” In other words, Konstantin
views Trigorin as Hamlet viewed Claudius.
And there I see such black
and grained spots
As will not leave their
allusion to Hamlet is the short stage drama Konstantin presents
on the grounds of Sorin's estate. This “play within a play” mimics the
one that Hamlet stages in the third scene of the second act in Shakespeare's
play. Like Hamlet's mini-drama, Konstantin's play provokes a negative reaction
that halts the play before its completion.
Act 2 of The Sea Gull, Konstantin himself quotes from Hamlet when
he sees Trigorin approaching: "There comes real genius, striding along
like another Hamlet, and with a book, too. 'Words, words, words.' " Hamlet
speaks the underlined words at line 200 in the second scene of the second
fourth allusion to Hamlet is Konstantin's description of Nina's
acting after he attends her performances.
“Her delivery was harsh
and monotonous,” he tells Dorn, “and her gestures heavy and crude. She
shrieked and died well at times, but those were but moments.” In Shakespeare's
play, Hamlet tells a member of traveling stage players in the second scene
of Act III that the best actor does not rant or rave; nor does he gesture
Irina's inability to force the surly Ilya to provide her a carriage and
later Semyon's failure to persuade him to lend him a horse to ride home
may be tongue-in-cheek references to the famous plea of Richard III in
play of the same name: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
The Dead Sea Gull
Konstantin lays the dead sea gull at Nina's feet, he says, "So shall I
soon end my own life." This statement foreshadows his suicide at the end
of the play.
talking with Nina and seeing the dead sea gull, Trigorin tells her he wrote
the following in his notebook: "Idea for a short story. The shore of a
lake, a young girl who's spent her whole life beside it, a girl like you
She loves the lake the way a seagull does, and she's happy and free as
a seagull. Then a man comes along, sees her, and ruins her life because
he has nothing better to do. Destroys her like this seagull here."
Trigorin's notes foreshadow what he later does to Nina.
Questions and Writing Topics
Who is the most admirable character
in the play? Who is the least admirable?
Write a short psychological
profile of one of the characters. Use quotations from the play, as well
as library and Internet research, to support your thesis.
Write a page of dialogue presenting
what you believe would be Irina's reaction to Konstantin's suicide. Include
at least one other character in the dialogue.
Early in the first act, the
playgoer and reader learn that Polina and Dorn are having an affair. Near
the end of the same act, Chekhov hints that Dorn is Masha's father. Here
is the passage:
MASHA. Let me tell you again.
I feel like talking. [She grows more and
more excited] I do not love
my father, but my heart turns to you. For
some reason, I feel with
all my soul that you are near to me. Help me!
Help me, or I shall do something
foolish and mock at my life, and ruin
it. I am at the end of my
Do you believe that Masha
is the daughter of Dorn? Explain your answer?
To what extent
did Chekhov base The Sea Gull on his own experiences? Explain your