Dorn, Masha, and Arkadina sit enjoying a book by Maupassant. They take turns reading out loud. Arkadina stops the activity by asking Dorn to compare her appearance with Masha's. He determines that Arkadina looks younger than Masha even though Arkadina is twice Masha's age. Arkadina brags about how well kept she is and how she lives her life to the fullest without thinking about death. She also brags about her health and fitness. She makes fun of Masha and belittles her for sitting around doing nothing all of the time. Ironically, Arkadina herself seems to be doing very little but sitting around doing nothing. Dorn begins reading again, and Arkadina takes the book from him, preferring to hear her own voice. When she reads, she hears herself reading aloud a passage about women and writers. As she reads aloud, the passage describes how women will flatter a writer to make him love her. The similarities to her own relationship with Trigorin are striking, but Arkadina does not admit that obvious correlation. Instead, she brushes off the Maupassant description as a foreign, French custom. She boasts that in Russia, a woman in high society and a male writer will fall madly in love with each other, providing herself and Trigorin as an example—another unsympathetic gesture towards Masha's loveless life.
Sorin and Nina walk into the gathering of Arkadina, Masha, and Dorn arm- in-arm. Sorin playfully teases Nina about being happy because her father and stepmother left for a three-day trip, and therefore, she can escape their strict watch by socializing with Sorin's family and the people on his estate. Nina is happy and carefree. Sorin is happy, too, because he gets to spend time with Nina and receive attention from a young, pretty girl. Arkadina compliments Nina's beauty but stops anyone else from chiming in. She changes the subject to Trigorin and learns that he went down by the lake and has been fishing all day. Arkadina complains that she is worried about Treplev who is spending all of his days by the river, moping. Masha explains that Treplev is depressed. Eagerly, she asks Nina to recite from Treplev's play and describes Treplev as a "real poet." Everyone else pays little attention to Masha and disregards her sentiments, including Nina who does not recite from Treplev's play. Nina does not admire Treplev's writing anymore. Sorin falls asleep. Arkadina, Sorin, and Dorn debate what to do about Sorin's failing health. Dorn's attitude is that Sorin should live how he wants to live because nothing will really hurt or help his health at the age of sixty. Arkadina is perplexed over Dorn's aloof attitude towards ameliorating Sorin's symptoms.
The argument about Sorin's health develops into a debate on how to live life well. Sorin complains that Dorn has lived his life well and experienced life to the fullest extent. Sorin feels sorry for himself because he spent his life in a government job, never traveled, and never did anything remarkable to represent himself, or be remembered by in posterity. Sorin believes these self-described deficiencies are the reason he smokes and drinks.
Act Two compares and contrasts the divergent ways the artists in the play approach their life and their work. In the beginning of Act Two, Arkadina continues to reveal her habit of self-delusion. Though she is an artist of the stage, Arkadina is incapable of seeing her true self. Instead, she performs a part for an audience at all times when she is off-stage and seems incapable of stopping her charade. Arkadina does not intentionally harm the other women around her, but in the wake of her excessive ego boosting, she manages to insensitively wound the self-confidence of those around her, like Masha and Nina, for the vain pleasure of idolizing herself. She bruised an ego in Act One when she prevented Treplev's play from having a fair shot. At the top of Act Two, she compares herself to Masha, who is half her age to boost her own ego and consequently, embarrasses and insults the easy target of Masha who has nothing going for her in life. Arkadina's vanity and self-adoration allows her to cover herself in a mask of illusion that comes between her true self and true self-exploration. She sees only the picture of herself that she creates and insists that others see only that version as well.
Treplev is incapable of feeding Arkadina with the diet of her grand, self- created illusions. He sees her for whom she is underneath the mask of her selfish vanity and as a result, Arkadina cannot see Treplev's struggle to become an artist in his own right. Instead, Arkadina only thinks of Treplev as a failure because he fails to adhere to her demanding illusion of vanity. She pretends or occasionally asks, curiously, about Treplev's whereabouts, but she lacks true sentiment or concern about the state of his welfare.
Trigorin and Treplev pursue their artistic lives with different approaches than Arkadina. Arkadina is not interested in perfecting her technique, craft or for that matter, self-knowledge or challenging herself in any way. She is only interested in the adoration, status, and envy from others that she accumulates from the attention she receives as a result of being a performer. When Arkadina hears herself reading a quote from the book by Maupassant that describes a woman's flattery of a writer to win his love, it rings true to her relationship with Trigorin. Instead of processing this further for self-betterment, creative expression of self-knowledge, Arkadina denies the truth in the statement and brushes it off as a foreign custom. She recovers from the potentially self- effacing truth of the statement by reversing its meaning in her favor. She claims that in Russia, when women meet writers, they fall madly in love with them—thus, painting a rose-colored picture of simplicity and innocence of her relationship with Trigorin. The guise of denial and self-involvement without self-knowledge keeps Arkadina at a distance from facing her true self. This is her means of surviving life's disappointments. She does not accept them, she only allows herself to see the positive, and often misconstrued, version of the truth.