Masha: I know you love me; I'm touched. I just don't love you back, that's all. (1.8)
In this early scene, Masha's response to Medvedenko is casual and matter-of-fact; but as the play goes on, her involvement in an unhappy love triangle causes her more and more pain. She drinks more, smokes more, and abandons her baby.
Konstantin: It's her! Oh, I can't live without her! Even the sound of her footsteps is perfect! I'm so happy I'm out of my mind! (1.34)
Konstantin is at his happiest in this moment—just before the failed premiere of his play begins to turn Nina against him. Poor guy.
Nina: But nothing happens in your play! It's all one long speech. And I think a play ought to have a love story. (1.66)
Here's Chekhov with a little gentle self-mockery for the lack of action in his own plays. Although nobody could accuse him of leaving out the love.
Paulina to Dorn: Put your hat back on! You're going to catch cold like that! (1.101)
Paulina may be trying to express her love by fussing over Dorn, but this seems to be the wrong way to seduce the travel- and freedom-loving doctor.
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)
Doctor Dorn seems detached from love… but he's certainly not detached from sex. Do you think he's making a move on Masha here?
Masha: (With contained emotion) You should see him whenever he recites something he wrote: his eyes burn, his face gets very pale and intense. He has such a beautiful, sad voice! You can tell he's a real poet. (2.19)
Art can make people fall in love with the artist behind it. Think about it: how many rock stars have you fallen in love with?
Konstantin: You've changed. You look at me with that cold look; you're always on edge when I'm around. (2.85)
Nina's falling in love with Trigorin and the prospect of being near his success. Konstantin is in agony.
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)
The doctor and the writer are exempt from real, heart-wrenching love in this play. Chekhov was both; is he making some comment about himself? Is it the observational aspect of these professions that keeps these men from digging in to life as well?
Masha: I made up my mind to tear love out of my heart, tear it out by the roots. (3.1)
Nice try, Masha. Daughter of a lieutenant-turned-farm manager, she believes that hard work and fortitude can solve anything. But she never gets over her love for Konstantin, no matter how hard she tries.
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)
As Arkadina rewraps the bandage around Konstantin's head, he professes his love for her. Five minutes later, though—just as in some fiery love affair—he's at his mother's throat and she makes him cry.
Trigorin: "If you ever need my life, come take it." (3.88)
Nina understands love as self-sacrifice. Trigorin takes her up on her offer.
Medvedenko: Konstantin wrote a play, and that Zarechny girl is starring in it. They're in love. Tonight their souls will be united in a unique artistic endeavor. (1.7)
The non-artist characters idealize the arts as some higher calling. The artist characters realize the blood, sweat, and soul-shattering disappointments that are the reality of creative practice.
Konstantin: Now, this is what I call a theater! A curtain, two wings, right and left, and then nothing. No set. Empty space! The curtain opens, all you see is the lake and the far horizon. And the curtain will open at exactly eight-thirty, just as the moon rises. (1.20)
A traditional set in Chekhov's time would be, as Konstantin describes it, "a room with three walls" (1.28). Konstantin's preference for the open air—and the real effect of a rising moon—indicates his progressive tastes, especially in comparison with his mom's.
Sorin: One time I was singing just like this, and one of the people in my office said: "You know, sir, you have a really loud voice." Then he thought for a minute and said: "loud… and ugly." (1.41)
A light, comic reference to the serious matter of Sorin's regret. He would like to have been a writer, artist, talented at something. He feels he's wasted his life.
Konstantin: Is the firepot ready? And the sulfur? When the red eyes start to glow, there has to be a smell of sulfur. (1.59)
Oh dear, oh dear. With effects like this, we can tell Konstantin's in for a bruising, critical reception.
Shamrayev: In Poltava, about twenty-five years ago. She was wonderful! Ravishing! Brilliant acting! And that comic, Chadin, Pavel Chadin? Do you remember him? Best Raspluyev I ever saw; better than Sadovsky, madame, I swear to God. (1.81)
For Shamrayev, name-dropping artists is a way to elevate his status with the gentlefolk.
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)
Ouch, mom. Arkadina feels threatened and insulted by Konstantin's rejection of the traditional theatrical forms to which she's devoted her career. So she lashes out with brutal criticism.
Konstantin: It started that night my play was such a howling failure. Women never forgive failures. I burned it, every last page. (2.87)
Konstantin believes that Nina rejects him because of his play. So he's failed as an artist and as a man. Double ouch.
Arkadina: You're so talented, so smart, you're the greatest writer alive, you're the only hope of Russia… you think I'm exaggerating? Lying? Look into my eyes. (3.103)
Arkadina knows the way to a writer's heart: his ego.
Dorn: Evenings, when you left your hotel, the entire street was full of people. You drift along with the crowd, no destination in mind, just back and forth; it becomes a living thing, and you become part of it, spiritually as well as physically; you begin to believe that a universal world soul is possible… like in your play, Konstantin, remember? (4.65)
Intelligent, educated, and sensitive, Dorn was the only person to genuinely compliment Konstantin on his play in Act 1.
Trigorin: Oh, by the way, is that stage still out there? You remember? Where you did your play. I want to take a look at it; I'm writing a story about it, so I wanted to check the setting again. (4.98)
Conversations, experiences, even the creative work of others—all just fodder for Trigorin's own art.
Sorin: I just love writers. There was a time, all I ever wanted was two things: get married and be a writer. And I never did either one. Yes. Well, it must be nice to be a writer, even if you're not famous. I suppose. (1.33)
Everyone in the play values and admires artists, but really only if those artists are successful. Konstantin's only considered legit in Act 4, once he's been paid for his writing.
Trigorin: Everyone writes the way he wants… the way he can. (1.115)
Trigorin may not be interested in Konstantin's writing, but at least he's not cruel about it.
Nina: Oh, but I'd think once you've known the thrill of creation, all other pleasures must pale by comparison (1.139)
Nina believes in the ideal of creation, while Trigorin is acquainted with its reality. By the end of the play, she's been disabused of her illusions.
Dorn: And another thing. Everything you write has to have a clear, concise central idea. You have to be aware of what you're writing, otherwise you'll…you'll lose your way, and your talent will destroy you. (1.170)
The doctor is full of pedantic advice about a career in which he has no experience. But Konstantin's not listening, anyway—he's busy looking for Nina.
Trigorin: All I think about day and night is having to write. I have to write, I have to. I finish one story, and then I have to write another one, and then a third, and after that a fourth. I write without stopping, like an express train; it's the only way I know how. (2.100)
Writing doesn't really satisfy Trigorin; it's his compulsion.
Trigorin: A beginning writer, unless he's lucky, feels completely out of place—awkward, useless, nervous. He's obsessed with successful writers and people in the arts, he hangs around them, but nobody notices him. (2.100)
Trigorin is describing himself, of course, but this is also a great description of Konstantin.
Konstantin: You want me to treat him like a genius…well, excuse me, I can't lie. His writing makes me sick. (3.71)
Konstantin doesn't consider Trigorin an artist, but rather a craftsman skilled at giving the reading public what they want. We believe the term is "sell-out."
Paulina: I never thought you'd ever become a real writer, Kostya. None of us did, really. And now you even get paid for what you write! Thank God! (Runs her hand through Konstantin's hair) And you've gotten so good-looking… Kostya dear… can't you be a little nicer to my Masha? (4.24)
Success in writing gives Konstantin a new, higher status. In Act 1, Paulina would never have wanted Masha to hook up with him.
Trigorin: I bring you congratulations from your many admirers. There's a great deal of curiosity about you in Moscow and Petersburg; people are always asking me about you. (4.96)
While Konstantin's somewhat of a hermit, Trigorin is established in the jet setting—well, train traveling—world of professional artists keeping up with each other's careers. "Hype" is certainly not just a twenty-first century invention.
Konstantin: She's bored. She's also jealous. She already hates me, she hates my play, she hates this performance tonight because she's afraid her writer friend might like Nina… She's angry because Nina's the star of the show and she isn't. (1.24-6)
Arkadina's jealousy of Nina's youth and talent mirror Konstantin's envy of Trigorin's experience and fame.
Konstantin: Oh Uncle… it's awful! She has all these famous people at her parties, writers and actors, and I'm the only one there who isn't famous, and they only tolerate me because I'm her son. (1.30)
While Konstantin criticizes Trigorin for being an attention-seeking hack, he has the same desire for fame and recognition.
Nina: Those wonderful stories he writes!
Konstantin: (coldly) I don't know. I never read them. (1.62-3)
Konstantin is just as fearful as Arkadina that some love connection will happen between Nina and Trigorin.
Konstantin: "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)
Arkadina starts reciting Hamlet as a barb at her neurotic son—but he gives it right back to her. In this quotation, Hamlet criticizes his mother for her hasty, lust-driven marriage to Hamlet's uncle. Konstantin implies that Arkadina's relationship with Trigorin is less than innocent.
Paulina: I know why you want to be rid of me. It's because you've got lots of women, don't you? I'm not the only one, am I? You can't have them all move in with you, can you? (2.68)
Perhaps Masha inherited the tendency to love the wrong man from her mother, Paulina. Dorn, of course, has no intention of moving in with anybody.
Konstantin: Here comes the real talent! Behold, he enters! Just like Hamlet—he was reading a book too. (2.87)
Konstantin misses no opportunities to belittle Trigorin in front of Nina. It's a lost cause, though.
Trigorin: Her son's acting crazy. First he shoots himself, now he wants to fight a duel with me. What's the point? He sulks, he goes around whining about everything, wants to be a prophet of new forms… There's plenty of room for all the forms you want—why fight about it? (3.12)
Trigorin clearly has the upper hand in the rivalry with Konstantin. Do you think he's threatened by the younger writer at all?
Trigorin: And then people read it and say: "Yes, very nice, he's quite talented, very nice, but he's no Tolstoy." (2.102)
For a creative person—even a commercially successful one like Trigorin—it seems there's no escape from the envy of others.
Konstantin: You and those tired old friends of yours—you've taken over everything artistic; you think the only thing that's real and legitimate is your own work! Anybody different, you try to shut them up and get rid of them! I don't respect any of you! I don't respect you, and I don't respect him!
Arkadina: You… Symbolist! (3.73-4)
Talk about dysfunctional. The mother/son relationship is complicated further by the fact that Konstantin and Arkadina defend opposing artistic positions.
Trigorin: She's calling me! This may be what I've always needed!
Arkadina: The love of a country girl? How little you know yourself! (3.93)
Arkadina's worst fear has come true: Trigorin wants to be with Nina, not her. Arkadina won't let him go without a fight. She proceeds to flatter him into staying with her (at least for now).
Medvedenko: Why do you always wear black?
Masha: Because I'm in mourning for my life. I'm not happy. (1.1-2)
This famous opening to The Seagull introduces the feelings of regret and dissatisfaction that plague everyone in this play.
Sorin: Just go on living, whether you feel like it or not. (1.16)
The existential despair expressed here links Chekhov to Beckett in some readers' minds. Check out Waiting for Godot to see just what we mean.
Konstantin: That kind of theater is tired, it's all worn out. It's so restrictive!… they try to draw some kind of moral, some nice easy moral, something you wouldn't mind having around the house. (1.28)
Like many creative innovators, the source of Konstantin's new ideas are his dissatisfaction and disgust with the art's status quo.
Konstantin: What am I going to do? I've got to see her, I've just got to! I'm going after her. (1.174)
Being in love means being irritated, excitable, and never satisfied, at least in this play.
Masha: I always feel as if I'd been born ages and ages ago; I just drag myself from one day to the next, like the hem of my skirt. And there are days when I just don't feel like living. (2.4)
Masha's angst borders on clinical depression.
Arkadina: I feel just awful about my son. What's going on with him—do you know? Why is he bored all the time? And why is he so distant? (2.17)
Arkadina vacillates between worrying about and caring for her son and trying to destroy him and his dreams.
Dorn: She'll have a couple vodkas before lunch. (2.40)
Masha treats her unhappiness with drugs and alcohol.
Trigorin: Here I am talking to you, I'm all worked up, and still I can't forget for a minute that I've got a story to finish. (2.100)
Like being in love, being creative can mean a continual restlessness.
Sorin: But you're going away… It'll be so boring around here without you.
Arkadina: What makes you think it'll be any better in town?
Sorin: It won't. But I still want to go. (Laughs) (3.34-36)
The oldest character in the play and an ill one, Sorin has a little more perspective on his desires. He recognizes that being elsewhere won't improve his situation, but he still longs for a change. He laughs at his own foolishness.
Medvedenko: I can walk back, Masha. Really, it's not… It's only four miles… Goodbye. (4.102-4)
Four miles… in the rain. Poor Medvedenko. Never did anything to anybody, but he married a woman who doesn't love him. Her unhappiness pours into him, no matter how nice he is to her.
Arkadina: My dear, I believe in you! You simply must go on the stage!
Nina: Oh, that's my dream. (Sighs) but it'll never happen. (1.128-29)
Arkadina must compliment Nina so freely because she thinks the unconnected girl will never have access to the stage. Either that or she's trying to hide her jealousy from Trigorin.
Arkadina: I have a fixed rule: I never think about the future. I don't think about old age, I don't think about dying. Whatever happens happens. (2.3)
It might be true that Arkadina doesn't plan for the future, but it's clear that she thinks about it. Otherwise she wouldn't have such a stranglehold on Trigorin; she'd let him go, certain that another was right behind him.
Sorin: I worked for twenty-eight years in a government office, and I haven't had a life, I haven't experienced it or anything. And I want to—you understand what I mean? (2.37)
Though Sorin is in late middle age and is ill, he still hopes that some life is ahead of him: a romance with a young woman, or even just a trip to town.
Nina: I'd be willing to live in a garret and starve; maybe I wouldn't even like myself… just as long as I was famous! Really, spectacularly famous! (2.107)
Perhaps Nina's lust for fame stems from the neglect of her father and stepmother.
Masha: So I'm getting married. No love involved, just lots of responsibilities… Make me forget the past. (3.7)
Masha thinks she's figured out how to move on with her life and get over Konstantin. We're not so sure.
Nina: All I had was one pebble in my hand. I was trying to guess if I'd be an actress or not. I wish someone would advise me.
Trigorin: Nobody can advise you about that. (3.16-17)
Nina seems to be inviting Trigorin to "take her life" by giving her advice. He can't; he's still under the control of Arkadina and ultimately prefers it that way.
Sorin: He's an intelligent young man, and here he is stuck out here in the country, miles from nowhere, no money, no job, no prospects… He's ashamed, afraid of what will happen to him if he keeps on doing nothing, like this. (3.38)
Perhaps Sorin sympathizes so closely with Konstantin because of his own disappointments in life.
Trigorin: Love like this, young love, marvelous poetic love, a love that whirls you away to a land of dreams… it's the only thing on earth that can bring us happiness! I've never known a love like that! When I was young I never had the time—I was always trying to get myself published, make a living. And now it's happened! (3.96)
We know from the end of the play that Trigorin's commitment to this "marvelous, poetic love" doesn't last. Is Nina a distraction for him? Or does Arkadina really ruin what could have been a good thing between those two?
Arkadina: My beautiful love, my divine lover…you're the final page of my life story! (3.101)
Arkadina's trying to lock down Trigorin for her "old age"—she's in her forties, by the way —and sacrifices some of her self-respect in order to do so.
Trigorin: Stay at the Slavyansky Bazaar Hotel. Let me know as soon as you get there. Molchanovka Street. (3.124)
Trigorin's enlivened by the prospect of seeing Nina again. But he can't seem to let go of the safety net of Arkadina.
Nina: So now you're a writer. You're a writer, and I'm an actress. We've both been sucked into the whirlpool. And that was such a happy life, back then. (4.166)
That's the thing in this play. Once you have what you always wanted, you realize it's not all it's cracked up to be.
Medvedenko: I'm the wage earner, and all I get is those twenty-three rubles. How am I supposed to buy a drink? Or sugar for tea? Or cigarettes, even? I can't do it. (1.5)
Okay, maybe drinks, sugar, and cigarettes aren't a recipe for happiness, but Medvedenko has a point. Being financially comfortable can afford access to luxuries that might make life a little easier.
Konstantin: And she's stingy. I happen to know for a fact she has seventy thousand in the bank in Odessa, but go ask her for a loan and she has hysterics. (1.26)
Konstantin complains about one of Arkadina's character flaws. Her stinginess provides for a number of comic moments in the play, but it's also a painful reality for her penniless, dependent son.
Konstantin: I left the university after my third year, I'm not talented, I haven't got cent to my name, my birth certificate says I'm from Kiev and was "born into the middle class." (1.30)
Konstantin's poverty and meager social status cripple him with both Nina and Arkadina.
Konstantin: He's not dumb, though; he's not even forty yet and he's already rich and famous, he can have anything he wants. So now he only drinks beer and only goes for older women. (1.32)
Konstantin criticizes Trigorin's uninspiring writing, but clearly admires the way the man has managed to garner success and material comfort.
Medvedenko: How much do choir singers make, do you know? (1.161)
Shamrayev has told yet another boring story about performing artists, but all Medvedenko can think about is his income versus theirs.
Sorin: (Starts to whistle; then, hesitantly) I think the best thing might be for you to…well, to give him some money. (3.40)
Sorin knows what Arkadina's reaction to this request will be. He's sheepish and deferential when it comes to his strong-willed younger sister.
Arkadina: Now wait a minute. I suppose I could get him a new suit, but take a trip…no, I can't even afford the suit right now (Obstinately) I don't have any money… (Practically in tears) I don't have any money! (3.41-3)
Arkadina turns on the waterworks to get her way. She sure doesn't like it when people call her on her stinginess.
Arkadina: Don't forget us, now. (Gives the Cook a ruble.) Here's a ruble. That's for the three of you. (4.118)
Arkadina gives them what amounts to a dollar… to split three ways. No wonder Shamrayev hates her.
Nina: I have to get up early tomorrow morning to catch the train to Yelets, third class, with all the peasants, and in Yelets I have to put up with the attentions of dirty-minded businessmen who claim to love art. What a horrible life! (4.166)
Now a working actress, Nina lives an economically-depressed reality much different than the fame and fortune she imagined for herself.
Konstantin: I'm twenty-five years old; I'm a constant reminder she's not so young anymore. When I'm not around, she's only thirty-two; when I'm around, she's forty-three. (1.28)
It's easy to make fun of Arkadina's vanity, but in a business in which appearances are all-important, an illusion of youth can be pretty important.
Shamrayev: The theater is in decline, Irina Nikolayevna! They were giants back then! Nothing left now but pygmies! (1.83)
Arkadina may have traditional tastes, but Shamrayev, stuck in the country now, is positively reactionary.
Konstantin: Oh you ancient shadows, that float at night above this lake, wind us in your magic spell, make us sleep, and make us dream of what this place will be two hundred thousand years from now!
Sorin: In two hundred thousand years there'll be nothing left. Nothing! (1.89-90)
Konstantin is a big picture guy—one aspect of his personality that puts him at odds with his mother.
Arkadina: Ten or fifteen years ago, there was music and singing here by the lake almost every night. (1.122)
The habit of nostalgia reveals Arkadina's age more than the presence of her son does, though she doesn't seem to realize this.
Sorin: Let's go in, shall we? I'm going to catch my death in all this dampness. And my legs hurt. (1.156)
Sixty years old and ailing, Sorin is a constant reminder of mortality for the other characters.
Dorn: You're sixty years old. Medicine won't help.
Sorin: But I want to go on living! Even at sixty! (2.27-8)
Dorn's medical philosophy certainly differs from the approach of today: prolonging youth as long as possible. Sorin is understandably a little perturbed by his physician's lack of compassion.
Trigorin: Young love has finally appeared in my life; it calls out to me. I can't just run away from it! (3.96)
Nina presents an opportunity for rejuvenation that Trigorin feels he sorely needs.
Paulina: Our lives are almost over!
Arkadina: I know, dear. But what can we do? (4.115-116)
Paulina cries, as Arkadina gets ready to leave. Perhaps Arkadina's relieved to be moving again, believing that it keeps her young.
Masha: There's nobody here. The old man keeps asking where's Kostya, where's Kostya. He can't live without him. (4.1)
Sorin's health declines rapidly in the time between Acts III and IV. Between the death of Nina's baby, Konstantin's suicide, and Sorin's impending death, the last Act is chock-full of loss.