Chekhov views all his characters with a half-smirk—a mixture of compassion and ridicule—and we really have to choice but to do the same. We admire Konstantin's idealism and honesty, but man-oh-man does his whining get on our nerves.
Arkadina is beautiful, charming, and funny, but her powers of manipulation (and her anger) is downright scary… but kind of funny:
Arkadina: And now it turns out he's written a masterpiece! Can you believe this? He arranged all this, that foul smell, not as a joke, but as an attack upon me! He wants to teach us how to write and how to act… Did he ever think of what I might like to watch? No, he gives us some sort of Symbolist raving. (1.112)
Even Nina, the play's most innocent character, elicits a few amused eye rolls with her bumpkinish fawning over Trigorin. She really needs to dial it back a notch.
By combining virtues and flaws in each character, Chekhov achieves an affectionate distance that we in the audience share.
Tragedy. Tragedy. Crazy crazy ultra-sad, hero-loses-it-all, love-is-dead tragedy.
Even though Medvedenko misuses words to comic effect, and Sorin has silly verbal tics, this play is bleaksauce. Although there's plenty of opportunity to laugh in the Act 1 presentation of Konstantin's play (both at his earnestness and at his mother's callousness), this play goes so bad so quickly that we can't even give it the label of "tragicomedy."
So why is this a tragedy? It's just that the ruin of Konstantin and Nina is so total. Nina loses her child and her mind, and for what? For love for a no-good writer and the pursuit of mediocrity. Konstantin remains similarly committed to a hopeless cause, has no true love in his life, and ends it with a gunshot.
As you might guess, the seagull is an important symbol that recurs throughout Chekhov's play, The Seagull. No huge shocker there. Nina calls herself a seagull. Konstantin shoots one and leaves it lying around for Trigorin to find. Trigorin then recognizes a great image when he sees one; the seagull gives him an idea for a story about a girl much like Nina.
The innocence and freedom of a bird in flight is a recurring image in Chekhov's other plays as well (think migrating cranes in Three Sisters). In The Seagull a play full of longing and disappointment, though, this beauty is destroyed—literally stuffed and paralyzed—by the selfishly destructive actions of characters in love.
In short, this little play will change the way you view those gross flying creatures that swoop for sandwich remains at parks. Thanks, Chekhov.
There's no hoopla at the end of The Seagull. After the unhurried pace of the rest of the play the ending—with just four lines after the gunshot—almost feels rushed. Konstantin has killed himself without fanfare (and done so offstage, thank goodness).
Chekhov seems to be making the point that even this extreme action, suicide, is just one of the things that happens in life. It shouldn't be spotlighted or given a musical number. Well, maybe one musical number.
It's also interesting that Chekhov cuts the play off before Arkadina discovers her son's death. She really should know what's happened—she even says "Oof! That scared me! It reminded me of when…" implying that the first suicide attempt is still on her mind (4.189).
But Dorn is easily able to pull a bait-and-switch on her, blaming the gunshot sound on an exploding bottle in his medicine bag (good one, Dorn). Is Arkadina in denial? Is she afraid of her own guilt in the situation? We don't know for sure. With the protagonist dead, Chekhov wraps up the story quickly and simply leaves us with questions about the future of the family who survives him.
We've said it before, and we'll say it again: thanks, Chekhov.
Chekhov doesn't tell us exactly where Sorin's farm is located in Russia, but we can assume (according to translator Paul Schmidt) that it resembles the estate Chekhov bought in 1891. It was fifty miles south of Moscow in open country with rivers, ponds, and lots of trees.
The first act takes place on the back lawn that overlooks the lake. It's summer, just a little after sunset—a bewitching moment for the premiere of Konstantin's play and the potentialities of love. It's very romantic, an ironic setting for the play's ridiculous failure and the subsequent implosion of relationships.
Act 2 also places the conflicts against a backdrop of leisure. It takes place at a hot noon, on a side lawn set up for croquet. The magical lake is still visible, casting a spell over Trigorin and Nina at the end of the act.
Act 3 is in Sorin's dining room—a more claustrophobic setting for the uncomfortable departure of Trigorin and Arkadina. Their luggage is piled up waiting to go.
Two years later we're in Act 4, in a parlor that Konstantin has converted into a study. Family and friends invade the workspace to chat and play cards, pushing Konstantin into an adjoining room to kill himself. Stormy weather underscores the tragic ending: dum dum dummm.
The Seagull isn't hard to read. There might be some moments where the plot (or lack thereof) gets a little fuzzy, but the language is relatively straightforward and the characters are people we can identify with.
But this little puppy will take a toll on you, both emotionally and existentially. We're presented with a bunch of characters that fall somewhere on a scale that runs from Wimpy & Unfulfilled to Callous & Manipulative. And because Chekhov is an insanely masterful writer, we end up… identifying with basically all of 'em.
That's right. This play will put you through the emotional ringer, and make you think long and hard about what you want and whether that want is crippling you. Yowch.
Chekhov believed that theater should reflect life. "What happens onstage should be just as complicated and just as simple as things are in real life. People are sitting at a table having dinner, that's all, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being torn apart," he wrote.
In his efforts to craft plays this way, Chekhov meticulously recorded bits of conversation and quirks of personality, just as Trigorin does here. It's a good bet that Chekhov based Nina's flattery on his experiences with young fangirls, like this gem:
Nina: Oh, but I'd think once you've known the thrill of creation, all other pleasures must pale by comparison. (1.139)
And the moment when Nina gives Trigorin the medallion came right out of Chekhov's own life. A smitten young lady once gave him a medallion referencing a line from one of his stories—the same line he quotes from Trigorin's fictional Days and Nights.
Chekhov eventually loaned this medallion to the prop master for use in the production of The Seagull, and even gave it as a memento to congratulate the actress playing Nina. Romantically sensitive? Not so much. Creative use of reality? Totally. And there's lots more good gossip about autobiographical sources where that came from.
Well, it's the title of the play so we guess it might be an important symbol. Nina likens herself to a seagull in Act 1, and the image recurs throughout the play. In the second act, Konstantin has shot a seagull to get Nina's attention. She sees his act as meaningless melodrama, but he threatens to kill himself with the same method—and eventually succeeds.
When Trigorin discovers the dead seagull, it triggers an idea for a story:
"A young girl… 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." (2.117)
Rather than running as fast as possible in the other direction, Nina is excited about this potential self-sacrifice, and offers her life to Trigorin in Act 3. The seagull pops up again in Act 4. In a pretty tacky move, Trigorin had asked for it to be stuffed, a monument to his destruction of Nina. Now he's forgotten that it (and she) exist.
So what does the seagull mean? It's only beautiful when it's flying free, untouched by human involvement. Once it's used as a tool for love—once Konstantin shoots it and Trigorin stuffs it—that beauty gets twisted and soiled. The seagull image last appears in Nina's tearful, bothered speech in Act 4. She recognizes her own entrapment but won't free herself from love of the man who destroyed her.
The lake has a hypnotizing power over the characters in The Seagull. Dorn credits it with making everyone fall (unhappily) in love:
Dorn: You're so upset! You're all so upset! All this love… It's that magic lake! (Tenderly [To Masha]) But what can I do to help, my child? Hm? What? What? (1.188)
Nina confesses that she's drawn to the lake just like a seagull is. For Konstantin, it's a beautiful, natural setting for his experimental play, far superior to a box set in some stuffy theater. The lake makes Trigorin want to fish quietly all day long… and write stories about young women who live by it:
Trigorin: Idea for a short story. The shore of a lake, and a young girl who's spent her whole life beside it… 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. (2.117)
While the lake means different things to each character, we'd say it symbolizes the longing of all of them—the wish they have for balance, peace, and happiness. And that wish is never going to come true, no matter how hard they wish upon stars (or seagulls) for it to happen.
Hamlet first comes up in Act 1, when Arkadina is impatiently waiting for Konstantin's play to begin. Totally incapable of sharing the spotlight, the actress quotes a bit of Gertrude (Hamlet's mother) to get some attention. Konstantin does her one better. He mocks her romance with Trigorin by referencing the moment when Hamlet criticizes Gertrude's affair with Claudius:
Nay, but to live
in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
stewed in corruption, honeying and making love
over the nasty sty. (1.89)
You can learn more about the Hamlet/Gertrude relationship here, but what's important here is its Oedipal nature—the sexual undercurrent between mother and son. Think about it: Konstantin plays the "she loves me, she loves me not" game about Arkadina, not Nina. He has lots of knock-down-drag-out arguments with Arkadina, followed by kissy-kissy making-up scenes:
Konstantin: The last few days, I've loved you the way I did when I was little. Totally, tenderly. You're all I've got. (3.65)
And more than anything, he can't stand the way she treats Trigorin. The dysfunctional mother/son relationship—along with the rejection from Nina—helps drive Konstantin to suicide.
Chekhov was a weird dude, always insisting that his plays are comedies. Bro, your protagonist shoots himself at the end.
In this stage, Booker says the hero is in some way incomplete and focused on the future—especially on a course of action that might send things in a positive direction. Um, yeah. Konstantin is hopeful that his play will be a success, Nina will love him, and he can get out from under the thumb of his she-witch mother.
We can really see these ideas in his conversation with his uncle Sorin. Konstantin wants Nina, he wants success for himself, he wants change in the theater. All of these things, he hopes, will begin to be his after his play premieres.
It's kind of a dream come true. Nina loves Konstantin back and is performing in his play. She tells him her heart is overflowing with him (1.42). Things are going great! Konstantin's committed to the play, he's committed to Nina.
In this stage, things begin to go wrong. The play is a flop—it brings Konstantin the opposite of the glory he had been looking for. Nina falls out of love with him and gravitates toward Trigorin. Even his dramatic gesture with the seagull is ignored—worse, it's devoured by the story-carnivore Trigorin.
In this stage, the hero is losing control. We'd say that might be a good description of suicide, the extreme gesture that leads into this act—Konstantin has lost the attention of both Nina and his mother, both of whom are focused on Trigorin and he tries to shoot himself. Konstantin's Act 1 dreams of love and success almost seem impossible to achieve now.
So Konstantin has settled into some sort of productivity at Sorin's house, though he's still bored, poor, and frustrated. When Arkadina and Trigorin bring their mess back to town—and Nina stops in and rejects him once more—Konstantin has had it. The "final act of violence" Booker tells us to look for is Konstantin's suicide.
The family is gathered at Sorin's estate for the summer. Konstantin's premiering his play; it stars his love interest, Nina. At this point, it's all about possibility. Maybe Arkadina will love the play, maybe Nina and Konstantin will get engaged, who knows? We're waiting, along with the characters, to see what happens next.
The play is a total flop and Nina meets the dashing Trigorin. Things are going downhill fast for Konstantin, and this sets off a string of events that begin to shape the story. We now know this isn't just a fun romp about Russian aristocrats putting on a play. Nina falls out of love with Konstantin and starts seriously eyeing Trigorin; Konstantin gives a hint of his extreme nature by presenting Nina with a dead seagull.
The attraction between Nina and Trigorin continues to develop, causing major problems for both Konstantin and Arkadina. Konstantin tries to kill himself.We'd call a suicide attempt a complication, wouldn't you? Things get pretty dark pretty fast. Nina and Trigorin want to take their relationship to the next level. Arkadina shows her ugly side, begging Trigorin to stay with her. And Konstantin and his mother continue to fight over her relationship with "that man."
Two years later, Nina comes in from the cold to see Konstantin, who has never let go of his love for her. He wants to understand her, and wants her to stay with him. He's hoping to regain the innocent love of their youth. But she's still hopelessly smitten with Trigorin—even though he cheated and left her and their baby.
So this is the final blow for Konstantin. Cold, wet, homeless, childless, and poor, Nina still doesn't need him. How will he take it? Always concerned for his mother, he confesses the strange worry that she'll see Nina leaving and get upset. He tears up his manuscripts and leaves the room.
Konstantin shoots himself—this time successfully. The family hears the gunshot. Immediately Dorn makes an excuse to protect Arkadina, and goes into the next room to investigate. Just a few lines remain until the end of the play.
The family is left with the reality of Konstantin's death. How will Arkadina react to her son's suicide? Chekhov doesn't show us. He leaves it hanging just before she finds out.
No, you're not crazy. The Seagull is in four acts. This Three-Act structure is just another way of breaking down the events in the play.
"Act 1" encompasses Chekhov's Act 1 and part of Act 2, up until Konstantin brings in the dead seagull. Konstantin seeks success and the love of Nina—to him, two inseparable goals—and bangs his head against the wall trying to secure both of those.
The rest of Act 2, all of Act 3 and the beginning of Act 4. Rejected by Nina when Trigorin consumes her, Konstantin still can't give her up. He attempts suicide, and welcomes her back for a visit.
The rest of Chekhov's Act 4, after Nina's departure. Bereft of Nina, facing a house of unfriendly family and neighbors, Konstantin kills himself.
The songs Dorn hums or sings establish him as a worldly and educated man, and often comment on the action: