Love comes up every five seconds in The Seagull. Almost all of the characters are in love, typically with characters who don't love them back. The farm manager's daughter loves the young writer who loves the young actress who loves the older writer who is also loved by the older actress. We're not kidding.
There's no lasting mutual love in this play, and no one seems able to choose who he or she loves. Some characters try to get away from their unsuccessful loves; others embrace hopeless romance with reckless passion. In this play, love equals longing and dissatisfaction.
In The Seagull, Chekhov uses love as a means of exploring the universal human experience of unfulfilled desire.
Refusing to generalize, Chekhov uses a diverse cast of characters to portray the range of attitudes toward love.
Art is second only to love as the major theme of The Seagull. (Take a look at the laundry list of literary and cultural references in "Shout Outs" to see just how major.) A great battle between experimental and traditional theater pits the neurotic son Konstantin against his narcissistic mother Arkadina.
Even country characters whose professions have nothing to do with art—the doctor, the farm manager, and the schoolteacher—are full of opinions and interest in writing and actors. But like love, obsession with art doesn't bring the characters much satisfaction. They agonize over their work, demean others' creative accomplishments, and question their vocation's effect on their quality of life.
Chekhov argues in The Seagull that romantic love and artistic pursuits undermine each other.
Material success as an artist is another way to achieve social status in The Seagull.
The two main male characters in The Seagull are writers. Writing is a compulsion they can't stop themselves from serving; the need to observe and to record life regularly interrupts the living of it.
Writing is also a way of competing for recognition in the world—particularly the world of the two main female characters. Konstantin and Trigorin constantly belittle each other's work in the presence of Nina and Arkadina. In the end, Trigorin wins, though not necessarily with a triumph of craft. He's simply more famous, successful, and magnetic than Konstantin.
In his exploration of human longing,Chekhov presents the image of two writers: the progressive writer who remains obscure and misunderstood, and the rich and popular writer who seeks more respect.
Without pulling focus from the human drama in The Seagull, Chekhov explores some conflicting principles in writing.
The characters in The Seagull are crippled by that green-eyed monster, jealousy. They envy their romantic rivals and want sole ownership of their lovers' hearts. When anyone praises one writer or actress, the others rush to pooh pooh his or her achievements.
The young writer wants to be experienced and accomplished, while the older writer, meeting an admiring young woman, sees a chance to relive his youth. The decrepit old uncle, stuck at home, envies the world-traveling doctor, and the doctor seems to covet the creativity of the young writer. Sheesh. These people have a bad case of grass-is-greener disease; they want what they don't have or can't be.
Jealousy motivates characters in The Seagull to strive for aesthetic greatness.
Jealousy is unquenchable in The Seagull, just like the longing for love.
Chekhovian characters are famous for their unhappiness. Unlucky in love, unsuccessful in their careers—or successful yet still unfulfilled—they don't shy away from voicing their dissatisfaction.
They drink. They smoke. They do quite a bit of talking. By insulting each other, controlling each other, and by denying each other love, money, and even horses, they generally try to alleviate their misery by making their friends just as unhappy. Longing and dissatisfaction are a fact of life in The Seagull.
Chekhov believes that dissatisfaction is the natural human condition.
Chekhov gets as much comic mileage as tragic import out of his characters' unhappiness.
Okay, so, early in The Seagull, these characters have some hopes and dreams. They even achieve some of them. For example, Nina becomes an actress. Huzzah! But she also loses her family, loses her baby, and loses her mind. Boo.
Konstantin seems on the verge of receiving the critical success he's always wanted, but he still can't get the girl. For many of the characters, the realization of old dreams is immediately replaced by the formulation of new ones, or by clinging to those old ones that remain unrealized. Life in Chekhov is a constant state of changing want.
Even with the achievement of their dreams and plans, most characters in The Seagull remain unfulfilled.
In The Seagull, the barriers to personal goals are often the actions of other people.
Not all of the characters in The Seagull are obsessed with money, but those who are tend to get the sharper end of Chekhov's ridicule stick. The schoolteacher Medvedenko gossips insufferably about others' salaries and whines about his own economic hardship—as though his main problem weren't a wife who loathes him.
Comically, the actress Arkadina cries every time her poverty-stricken son asks her for money, even though she has plenty of it. She's also a notoriously bad tipper. One of the few working-class characters in the play, Shamrayev, enjoys lording over the lords by restricting access to horses. Money is a means of control in the play.
Denying Konstantin money is one way Arkadina assures that her son will never equal her success.
Trigorin's commercial success allows him access to things he wants, and distracts him from things he loves.
Time. It's unstoppable in The Seagull, just like everywhere else. When the characters try to fight the repercussions of old age, Doctor Dorin says, in effect, "What do you expect?"
Everyone fears aging, particularly the famous actress. Her vanity is so powerful that she'd rather keep her son at a distance. His presence reveals her age. Death is often on the mind of these melancholy characters, whether they are young or old. Some of them long for the rest; others work to leave an eternal mark with their art.
Sorin's illness increases in severity throughout The Seagull to highlight the passage of time.
Konstantin's suicide is one approach to avoiding a slow demise like Sorin's.