Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Role of an Artist in Life and in Love
Chekhov does not simply write about artists and love, he creates the embodiment of art and love on stage. Through his characters' particular personalities, Chekhov portrays the various manners of being an artist and particularly, an artist in love. All four protagonists are artists in love. Arkadina, Trigorin, Treplev, and Nina have divergent relationships with their craft and their lovers. Arkadina and Nina romanticize acting, placing it on a pedestal higher than the everyday affairs of life. Arkadina places herself on this same pedestal using her identity as an actress to excuse her vanity. Nina exalts acting as well, but, contrary to Arkadina, she endows acting with nobility, sacrifice, and privilege. In writing, Treplev compulsively paralyzes himself in the pursuit of perfection, while Trigorin obsessively gathers details from his life and the lives around him for his work without allowing the work to affect his life.
Chekhov does not present an opinion about the artist or the artist's role in life and in love. No one character is all good or all evil, and Chekhov depicts these protagonists so that we sympathize and question their actions and words. He presents several takes on love and the artist, allowing his audience to take what they will from the examples that may or may not mirror their own lives and those of their loved ones. All four characters pursue art to some degree because it boosts their ego to be admired and respected for their work. Treplev in particular longs equally for admiration for his talents and for his self. His ego is wounded by his mother and by Nina. Success in love and in writing are equally important to him though he is successful in neither arena. Trigorin has the satisfaction of success in his writing, though he is never satisfied, and as he says, always starts a new story once the old one is finished. In love, Trigorin pursues Nina because he feels he might substitute the satisfaction and sense of completion that he lacks in his work with a love that would fulfill the void he felt as a youth. In some sense the satisfaction these characters obtain from being artists becomes equivalent with their feeling of being loved.
Evaluating the Self
A distinction can be made about characters in The Seagull as either self- aware or completely devoid of self-consciousness. Chekhov's setting on Sorin's estate provides an inactive backdrop for his characters to dramatically explore their thoughts and opinions on life and themselves as they pass the time telling each other stories and dreams. With next to nothing to do, the characters explore their lives and their selves. Treplev most harshly criticizes his life to the point of ruining it with his high standards for acceptance and his vulnerability in the wake of his failures. Sorin playfully assesses his life as well, and he reflects on a life quickly fading and expresses his own regrets to Dorn and to the others as he witnesses Treplev's struggle. Masha mourns her life, feeling sorry for herself without the eloquence of Treplev, nor the ability to laugh at herself as Sorin does, but with the matter-of-fact simplicity of disappointment and boredom. When challenged by Sorin who enviously accuses Dorn of having it all, Dorn expresses aggravation for spending his life as a doctor always on call, without a vacation, and at the mercy of others' needs. Dorn expresses regret without self-pity.
Nina too evaluates herself and her goal to become an actress. At first in awe with fame and the theater, Nina believes she will love herself and find happiness if she can acquire fame and fortune. Later when she returns in Act Four, she exhibits less hope than when we first meet her, but she has been enlightened with the knowledge that her life is well lived as long as she perseveres, not if she fails or achieves greatness.
Existentialism and Life's Meaning
The existential thought of the purpose of life with imminent death puzzles a few characters in The Seagull. Masha first brings our attention to this theme in the beginning of Act One when she claims, "I am mourning for my life." She transfers the purpose of mourning for death to life. This point of view sets the tone for the play. Masha bemoans her boredom and dissatisfaction with her life as she secretly hopes it will be turned around with the love of Treplev. If Treplev loved her, her life would suddenly have a purpose and meaning. Without the love of someone she loves in return, Masha views life as pointless and death-like, a punishment that must be fulfilled. Later in the play, Masha changes her mind and marries Medvedenko out of boredom, not love. Her life still depresses her, and she still yearns for Treplev. But being a wife and a mother give her new things to do and think about to pass the time until her death or Treplev's change of heart.
Sorin also wonders why he goes on living. He and Dorn debate the quality of their respective lives. Sorin sympathizes with Treplev because he observes Treplev struggling to fulfill goals like being a writer and a lover that Sorin himself once held as his own goals. Sorin describes the title of a story about him as "The Man Who Wanted." Sorin cannot figure out the meaning of his life. He spent most of it working in an office and he does not know why or how that came to happen. "It just happened," he says. Sorin never had anything that he set out to get. To Sorin, a life without fulfilled goals is an empty meaningless life.
Treplev and Nina also pursue meaning in their lives, believing they will find their identity through their work. Nina longs to become an actress and Treplev, a writer. Both believe that accomplishing their goals will give more meaning and opportunity to their lives. Both associate a meaningful life with the admiration of others. Nina changes her mind about this in Act Four. After she settles into a mediocre career, she comes to terms with a new belief that endurance is nobler than success.
Ironically, unrequited love is the structural glue that sticks most of the characters in The Seagull together. Medvedenko loves Masha, but Masha loves Treplev. Treplev does not love Masha back, he loves Nina. Nina loves Treplev briefly but then falls madly in love with Trigorin. Arkadina loves Trigorin but loses his affections to Nina. Paulina loves Dorn though she is married to Shamrayev. Dorn sometimes shares an affection for Paulina, but his apathy for her appears to have begun before the play started and continues to fade during the course of the play. The couples and the unrequited lovers resonate and reflect off of one another, serving as parallels and mirrors of each other in the play. They represent different stages of life and of love. The clearest parallel involves Paulina and Masha. Masha's unrequited love for Treplev and decision to marry Medvedenko seems to mirror her mother's unhappy marriage to Shamrayev and her unrequited love for Dorn.
Masha, Sorin, Treplev, and Trigorin have existential crises in The Seagull. Masha hates her life and does not know why she goes on living a boring, unhappy life. She sniffs snuff and drinks heavily to hide from her pain and disappointment. Sorin encounters something of a mid-life crisis and an existential crisis though his life is more than half over. He questions what he did with his life and regrets his lack of attempting to meet his goals in youth. Treplev lacks direction in his life. He thinks he is talented and creative, possible of greatness, but does not have a precise goal in mind or point to make. He allows his ambition to overwhelm his ability. His loss of Nina's love, his failure at impressing his mother, and his life in the shadow of Trigorin's success eat away at his spirit and will to live.
Trigorin has an existential crisis when he becomes excited in the prospect of an affair with young Nina. Trigorin was not actively questioning his life or his life choices at the beginning of the play and seemed content. But Nina's interest in his work and in a relationship with him force him to think about his life and its present meaning. Nina represents a second chance at youth to Trigorin. He selfishly pleads with Arkadina to allow him to be with Nina so that he can relive his youth that was spent seriously writing, not frolicking with young girls. Trigorin wonders what he missed in life as a youth because of his writing and what else he missed. Nina's love for Trigorin opens his eyes and creates a new sense of awareness about himself that he had not experienced before meeting Nina. Once he recognizes his loss in the past, Trigorin cannot believe in a future that does not include the risk of a new experience. His life in the past loses meaning and his future threatens to only have meaning if he attempts to have an affair with Nina.
The Banality of Existence
Chekhov emphasizes the mundane in life repeatedly throughout the play. This pattern of routine emphasizes the life-altering events that happen amidst ordinary experience and the ordinary experiences common to us all. Moments like going to dinner, playing cards, reading out loud, putting on a bandage, asking for a drink of water etc, continuously emphasize the everyday customs of being human and the uniqueness of moments that are not mundane but change our lives forever.
The seagull is the first symbol Chekhov used to title a play, written before The Cherry Orchard. The image of the seagull changes meaning over the course of the play. First, in Act One, Nina uses a seagull to describe the way she is drawn to the lake of her childhood home and her neighbors on Sorin's estate. In this case, the seagull represents freedom and security.
In Act Two, Treplev shoots a seagull and gives it to Nina. Treplev tells her that one day he will be dead in Nina's honor just like the seagull. Later, Trigorin uses the seagull as a symbol for Nina and the way he will destroy her, as Treplev destroyed the seagull. Treplev mentions that after Nina had the affair with Trigorin, she has written him letters signed, "The Seagull." In Act Four, Nina returns to the estate and calls herself the seagull then corrects herself, describing herself as an actress. The seagull changes its meaning from freedom and carefree security to destruction at the hands of a loved one. It symbolizes freedom at first and then dependence. The seagull also serves as a foreshadowing device. Nina fulfills Trigorin's prophesy of destroying her just like the seagull and Treplev kills himself in Nina's honor at the end of the play when she still does not love him.
Chekhov's setting of the play around a lake repeats and emphasizes its purpose with Treplev's setting of his play by the lake in Act One. The lake represents both Treplev and Chekhov's desire to move to a more naturalistic theater not limited by three walls. The lake means several different things to the play's characters. The lake is a place of reflection, respite, and escape. Trigorin goes there by himself to fish. Treplev goes to the lake to mope and reflect, perhaps also, to get attention for his bruised ego. To Nina, the lake magnetically draws her to it. It is a place to roost, to feel secure and at home when there is no home to be found. To Nina the lake also represents curiosity and exploration of childhood. She tells Trigorin that she knows all of the little islands on the lake. Treplev tells Nina that losing her love feels like the lake sunk into the ground. To him, losing her affection feels like losing a recognizable place, a place of peace and renewal. Treplev's metaphor describes a life-source—the lake—drying up and disappearing. This is how Treplev feels about his own life in relation to his loss of Nina.
Chekhov uses weather to create the tone for his stories and in his plays. The weather reflects the characters' state of mind and foreshadows upcoming events. For instance, before Nina returns to visit Treplev the weather is stormy and windy as if the storm conjured up Nina and brought her to the estate. Storms usually reflect a change in temperature and likewise, weather is a signal for change in The Seagull.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!