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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2012
Type of Work
.......Anton 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.
Composition and First Performance
.......Chekhov 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.
.......The 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 as Jacob.
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.
Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplyov: Twenty-five-year-old son of Irina. An aspiring writer, he is highly sensitive to criticism of his work—especially 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.
Polina Andryevna: Wife of Ilya. She despises her husband and carries on a secret affair with Dorn.
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 Sorin's estate.
The tone of the play is objective and unsentimental, with an undercurrent of wry humor.
.......In 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,
.......Semyon, 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.
.......Sorin 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.
.......Konstantin 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.
.......Konstantin, 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.”
.......Sorin 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.
.......When 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.
.......“They 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 of you.”
.......They 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.
.......When Konstantin and Nina go onto the stage, Polina and Doctor Yevgeny Dorn appear. Polina notes that Irina seemed to find him charming.
.......“You 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!”
.......Irina 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.
.......When 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, was beautiful.
.......After 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.”
.......Sorin 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 by thieves.
.......Everyone 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.
.......It 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.
.......“His heart is heavy,” Masha says.
.......Sorin 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.
.......“You 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 and bucket.
.......Sorin 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.
.......Everyone 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.
.......Outside, 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.
.......“You have no faith in my powers,” he says. “You think me commonplace and worthless.”
.......Trigorin appears. He is reading a book.
.......After 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.
.......“For 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.”
.......Trigorin 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."
.......Irina calls out and tells Trigorin she has decided to delay their return to Moscow.
.......In 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.
.......After 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.
.......“The sooner I take Trigorin away, the better,” she says.
.......Sorin 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.
.......Sorin 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.
.......Konstantin 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 will pass.
.......Trigorin 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.”
.......Trigorin thinks for a moment, then tells Irina that he wants to stay. She knows why.
.......“Are you so much in love?”
.......“I am irresistibly impelled toward her,” he says. Then he asks Irina to release him.
.......She 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.
.......Ilya 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.
.......“I am deserting my father and abandoning everything,” she says.
.......He tells her to go to the Hotel Slavianski Bazar and inform him when she arrives. He will be at the Grosholski House.
.......“What bliss to think that I shall
see you again so soon,” he says. They kiss.
.......Two 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.
.......Konstantin 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
.......Konstantin 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.”
.......Semyon 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!”
.......Konstantin 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.”
.......Dorn 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.
.......Irina 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.
.......Ilya, 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.”
.......Trigorin 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
.......Ilya 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.
.......Alone, 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.”
.......She 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
.......Konstantin 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.”
.......Konstantin 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.
.......Konstantin 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
.......Nina 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.
.......Polina 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.
.......Masha 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
.......The 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.
.......Konstantin 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.
.......But 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.
.......In a conversation with Dorn, Pyotr Sorin, a retired lawyer, speaks of four unfulfilled desires:
I 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........Polina desires Dorn as a husband and wants him to claim her openly. Her wishes, too, go unfulfilled.
.......Trigorin 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.' "
.......The 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.
.......Dorn says life has satisfied him, but in the same sentence he reveals an unfulfilled desire to know the joy
of artistic endeavor.
I 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 earth........Ilya 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.
.......Semyon wants Masha's love. He gets Masha, but not her love.
The Artistic Temperament
.......Chekhov gives us glimpses of the artistic temperament and the modus operandi of writers and actors.
.......For 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:
My 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........Trigorin 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,
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. Later, Nina 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.
.......Nina, 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, resounding fame!"
.......Konstantin 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.
.......Konstantin's 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."
.......Konstantin 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).
.......Circumstances 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.
.......The 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.
The Sea Gull: Symbol of Death
.......Once 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.
.......Masha 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.
.......As 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
.......The 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 eye—in 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,.......Konstantin 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.”
.......And 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
.......Sorin—old 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.”
The Sea Gull as a Comedy
.......Chekhov 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.
.......Consider 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:
NINA Why does it look so dark? And then there is this romantic exchange between Konstantin and Nina
KONSTANTIN It is evening; everything looks dark now.
KONSTANTIN What if I were to follow you, Nina? I shall stand in your garden all night with my eyes on your window. .......Konstantin 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 head.
NINA That would be impossible; the watchman would see you, and Treasure is not used to you yet,
and would bark.
.......Meanwhile, 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.
.......As 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.
Allusions and Direct References
.......Following 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 Trojan War.
Alexander: Alexander 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 and Asia.
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.
De gustibus: 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.
Nekrasov: Nikolai 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).
Semyon's Riddle: 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.
Influence of Shakespeare
.......Chekhov admired Shakespeare. He alludes to the great English playwright several times in the play. In the first act, Irina recites the following lines from Hamlet to her son, Konstantin:
Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul; .......In 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 Hamlet—criticizes 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 tinct.
.......Another 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.
.......In 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 act.
.......A fourth allusion to Hamlet is Konstantin's description of Nina's acting after he attends her
“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 broadly.
.......Finally, 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 Shakespeare's play of the same name: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
The Dead Sea Gull
.......When 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.
.......After 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."
.......After Trigorin's notes foreshadow what he later does to Nina.
Study 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 strength.
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 answer.