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The Seagull

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English Literature

Have you ever wondered what life would be like if you were famous? Who hasn't, right? In The Seagull, Anton Chekhov does exactly this. The Seagull is a four-act play that portrays the lives of people altered by fame. It was written in 1895 and it premiered on 17 October 1896 at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St Petersburg.

The Seagull: overview

AuthorAnton Chekhov
Original title in RussianЧайка (Chayka)
Written in1895
First stage performance1896
GenreDramaTragicomedy
StyleModernismRealism
Dramatic devicesMonologueSoliloquyIndirect actionPlay-within-a-play
Literary devicesForeshadowingSymbolism

The genre of the play is considered to be tragicomedy. Chekhov viewed all his plays as comedies, but their original director, Konstantin Stanislavski, interpreted them as tragedies.

The Seagull: summary

Note: since there are different translations of the play from Russian, there may be discrepancies in the spelling of the characters' names (e.g. Konstantin or Constantine).

The Seagull follows a group of artists who meet at a country estate.1 In Pyotr Sorin's estate, everyone comes to watch a play, written by Sorin's nephew, Konstantin Treplev, in which a young woman, Nina Zarechnaya, acts. Treplev's mother, the aging actress Irina Arkadina, keeps interrupting the play until Treplev stops the performance and leaves. Nina talks to Arkadina and the writer, Boris Trigorin, both of whom are famous. Receiving attention from these famous figures makes Nina happy. In contrast, all Treplev really cares about is seeing Nina again. A lady named Masha shares with the local doctor Yevgeny Dorn that she has feelings for Treplev.

Some days after, Treplev puts a seagull he has killed at Nina's feet, and he tells her that he will kill himself, too, because Nina has grown cold towards him. Nina is annoyed with him and she doesn't understand the symbolic meaning behind receiving the gift of the dead gull. Trigorin enters, and Nina tells him that she envies his life and wants to be famous like him.

A week later, it is revealed that Treplev has tried to kill himself. He survived, but he is wounded as a result. He has also challenged Trigorin to a duel. Masha tells Trigorin that she has decided to marry Medvedenko so that she is not miserable about Treplev. Sorin tells his sister, Arkadina, how worried he is about Treplev. He suggests that Arkadina should give Treplev some money to travel, but she claims that she can't spare any. Sorin faints because he is suffering from a serious illness, and Treplev enters and revives his uncle. Mother and son share a tender moment when Arkadina changes Treplev's bandages, and Treplev promises his mother that he will call off the duel.

It is revealed that Arkadina and Trigorin are lovers, but Trigorin is now attracted to Nina and he asks Arkadina to understand that he needs to pursue the young woman. Arkadina begs Trigorin to reconsider, but eventually she sees that her attempts to keep him are futile. Nina tells Trigorin that she's leaving her family and going to Moscow to become an actress. The writer gives her the address of his hotel, and they part with a kiss.

There's an interval of two years. Dorn and Treplev talk about what happened to Nina and Trigorin. Although Nina became an actress, she's not very successful. Furthermore, Nina got pregnant but lost the child, and after a while, Trigorin got bored of her. Treplev, on the other hand, has become a famous writer. Arkadina and Trigorin come to Sorin's estate for a visit because Sorin's health has gotten worse.

On his own, Treplev contemplates how meaningless his attempts to write are. Nina comes by the house and meets Treplev. She tells him that she used to be bad at acting because, when she was with Trigorin, he suffocated her passion. Now, she's found her purpose and she can keep going. Treplev begs Nina to stay, but she leaves. A gunshot is heard from offstage. Dorn checks what has happened. Out loud, he says it's nothing, but he discreetly tells Trigorin that he should take Arkadina away because Treplev has shot himself.

Note: most of the events that move the plot forward actually take place offstage. We learn about them from the characters who summarise them for us in their conversations. This device is called indirect action.

Chekhov is known for using indirect action in all of his plays, but it is especially memorable in The Seagull – even Treplev's tragic end is shown indirectly.

The Seagull: themes and quotes

Now we will analyse the main themes, symbols, and characters in The Seagull.

Love

Masha: Hopeless love – there's no such thing except in novels. It's of no consequence. The only thing is you mustn't let yourself go, and always be expecting something, waiting for the tide to turn... When love plants itself in your heart, you have to clear it out.

(Act 4)

Masha tells her mother that she has found a way to deal with her unrequited feelings for Treplev. Masha doesn't see the point in spending her life pining for what she can't have.

The lives of the characters revolve around love: Treplev is in love with Nina who doesn't love him back. Nina loves Trigorin even after he abandons her. Arkadina also loves Trigorin and even goes as far as to beg him on her knees to stay as her lover when he tells her he's leaving her for Nina. Masha loves Treplev who doesn't even notice her, which eventually leads to her marriage to Medvedenko. Everyone longs to be with someone who doesn't want them back. What is more, this theme goes beyond romantic love. Treplev seeks the love and approval of his mother, Arkadina, who is dismissive of him and never puts him first. Nina runs away from home because her parents don't approve of the artistic life she has chosen. When she comes back, they want nothing to do with her.

In The Seagull, Chekhov shows us that desiring the love of people who don't return your affections can become self-destructive. Treplev, who fails to move on from pursuing Nina's love and his mother's care, meets a tragic end by taking his own life. The play highlights the sad reality that mutual love is rare, and most people are unhappy in love. Chekhov argues that dwelling on unrequited love doesn't bring anyone closer to requited love.

Unfulfilled potential

Treplev: You have found your way, you know where you are going, but I'm still drifting in a chaos of images and dreams, not knowing why it is necessary, or for whom...

(Act 4)

After Nina has told Treplev that she has found her purpose, he shares with her his struggle to do the same.

Most of the characters in The Seagull feel like they haven't reached their full potential in life and in art. Instead of accepting the reality, Arkadina pretends that she's still young and glamorous. Trigorin is unsatisfied with his life and work as a writer, and yet he does nothing to change this.

Nina and Treplev are the only two characters who, after re-evaluating their lives, choose to act on them. Nina learns the hard lesson that neither life nor art mirrors her dreams and, after failing at both, she has a newfound faith that she can find solace. Treplev, on the other hand, looks back on his life and is consumed by his failures. He doesn't see any other way out but to kill himself.

The play presents the suffering of an unfulfilled life as inevitable. Each character has to choose how to react to failure and how to find fulfilment.

Art

Nina: [...] I know now, I understand, that in our work, Kostya - whether it's acting or writing - what's important is not fame, not glory, not the things I used to dream of, but the ability to endure.

(Act 4)

When Nina comes back to Sorin's estate after being away for two years, she has been through a lot and has matured. She shares with Treplev what she's realised about art, and why she was wrong before.

In The Seagull, art is connected to fame. Throughout the play, we see that the pursuit of fame can actually be an obstacle to making art. Nina dreams of becoming a famous actress only to discover that the true meaning of art is not glory. Wanting to be famous does not indicate that she is good at acting. Arkadina is so consumed with staying relevant, that she forgets why she became an actress in the first place. Similarly, Trigorin is a famous writer, but his work doesn't leave a mark on his personal life. He's unhappy, because his art is as empty as his life. As a writer, Treplev is very different from Trigorin. Treplev is a perfectionist; he searches for new forms in the theatre, and he obsesses over his works. Treplev is not interested in fame – he publishes his stories under a pseudonym. However, Treplev needs to be successful and to prove himself. His enormous ambition is his downfall.

The Seagull: Symbols

Seagull

The seagull is an evolving symbol. At the beginning of the play, it symbolises Nina's freedom, as she describes herself as a seagull who is drawn to the house by the lake. When she says she is a seagull, she means that she flies free and is chasing her dreams.

When Treplev kills a seagull in Act 2, the symbol changes. Treplev is using the dead seagull as a metaphor for the destructive force of his unrequited love for Nina. If she doesn't love him back, he'll kill himself just like he killed the seagull. The seagull foreshadows the end of the play when Treplev takes his own life.

In Nina's life, the seagull also becomes a symbol of destruction caused by a lover. When he sees the dead seagull, Trigorin tells Nina a story he would like to write about a girl growing up free as a bird being destroyed by the man she loves. This story foreshadows their relationship. The seagull becomes a symbol of Nina's loss of innocence. She suffers a lot because of Trigorin and, two years later, she regains her freedom. At the end of the play, Nina tells Treplev that she's a seagull, but then she corrects herself and states that she's not a seagull but an actress. Trigorin has killed the seagull that she once was, and now she has grown enough as a person to search for a different kind of freedom.

Lake

For both Nina and Treplev, the lake symbolises home. It is a place that Nina is drawn to at the beginning of the play, and a place she can't help but come back to in the end. Treplev uses the metaphor of the lake's water sinking into the ground to describe the feeling of losing Nina's love. To him, losing Nina is the same as losing the lake and losing a home.

Additionally, the stage at the beginning of the play is set outside by the lake. Treplev talks about finding new forms in theatre, and the lake symbolises moving on to theatrical forms that are brand new, out in the open, and different from previously established norms.

The Seagull: characters

Konstantin Treplev

Konstantin Treplev is Arkadina's son and Sorin's nephew. He's a young writer who's constantly trying to perfect his craft. No matter what he does, Treplev fails to gain his mother's love and support which leaves a permanent mark on his life. He's in love with Nina who doesn't love him back. Treplev feels everything very deeply when it comes to both love and art. He has one failed suicide attempt but, the second time, he goes through with it. At the end of the play, when he feels utterly alone, unloved by Nina, and unappreciated by anyone in his life, he shoots himself.

Nina Zarechnaya

Nina Zarechnaya is a young woman who enjoys the company of famous artists. At the beginning of the play, Nina dreams of fame as an actress, despite her family's disapproval. She rejects Treplev's affections and is drawn to the glamorous Trigorin. She tries to make it as an actress in Moscow where she also has an affair with Trigorin. She fails as an actress, and she soon finds out about Trigorin's cruel nature. She gets pregnant but loses the baby, and Trigorin leaves her. At the end of the play, Nina reveals that she still loves Trigorin and not Treplev. She finds a way to endure in life and as an actress.

Boris Trigorin

Trigorin is a famous writer. At first, he's Arkadina's lover, but then he's attracted to Nina. He has an affair with Nina, but he gets bored of her, leaves her, and reunites with Arkadina. Trigorin acts in his own interests. He treats Nina badly and laughs at her dreams. He's unsatisfied with his life because it is empty.

Irina Arkadina

Irina Arkadina is Treplev's mother and Sorin's sister. She's an ageing actress who constantly seeks validation and can't come to terms with the fact that she's slipping into obscurity. Arkadina is a selfish woman who doesn't care for her son, Treplev. He reminds her that she's not young anymore, and she neglects him. She doesn't read any of his works, even when he becomes famous. The only person she cares about, besides herself, is her younger lover Trigorin. She begs him to stay when he chooses Nina over her, and she takes him back when he leaves Nina.

Yevgeny Dorn

Dorn is the local doctor. He's a middle-aged man who never married but has lived a very full life. It's suggested that he might have had affairs with both Irina Arkadina and Polina Andreyevna. The other characters feel that they can confide in Dorn.

Pyotr Sorin

Sorin is Arkadina's brother and Treplev's uncle. He's the owner of the estate where the play is set. Sorin constantly complains that he didn't live his life to the fullest. He has very poor health and, at the end of the play, he's on his deathbed.

Masha

Masha is a young woman who's unhappy with her life. Her parents are Polina Andreyevna and Ilya Shamrayev. Masha has unrequited feelings for Treplev. She accepts that he doesn't love her back and she marries Medvedenko.

Medvedenko

Medvedenko is a poor schoolmaster. He loves Masha who eventually marries him, even though she doesn't love him back. Their marriage is unhappy.

Shamrayev

Ilya Shamrayev is a retired lieutenant who takes care of Sorin's estate. He's Polina Andreyevna's husband and Masha's father. Shamrayev has a terrible temper and often gets into arguments.

Polina Andreyevna

Polina is Shamrayev's wife and Masha's mother. She's in an unhappy marriage, and in love with Dorn who doesn't want her.

How has The Seagull influenced culture today?

The Seagull is one of the most beloved plays of all time. It is frequently performed in theatres and acting classes around the world because it gives actors the opportunity to explore naturalism in drama.

Naturalism is a form of realism in drama that was developed in the late 19th century in Europe. Naturalism attempts to show real life on stage as it is. It uses sets, costumes, narratives, and acting techniques that are as true to real-life as possible. Although realism and naturalism in drama are very similar, there is one main distinction. Realist plays provide a clear moral message by having the characters' struggles resolved in some way, while naturalist plays present a study of the events and raise questions without answering them.

The play has remained popular and relevant among audiences because it raises fundamental questions concerning contentment in life and the destruction brought about by fame. Although we may not be 19th-century Russian artists, the desires of the characters and the dynamics between them are still relatable to audiences today.

Have you seen the most recent film adaptation of The Seagull from 2018, starring Annette Benning as Arkadina and Saoirse Ronan as Nina?

The Seagull - Key takeaways

  • The Seagull is a four-act play by Anton Chekhov. It was written in 1895 and it premiered in 1896 at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St Petersburg.
  • The play is about a group of artists who meet at a country estate.
  • The Seagull explores unrequited love, fame, and the unfulfilled life of artists.
  • The main themes in the play are love, unfulfilled potential, and art.
  • The main symbols are the seagull and the lake.
  • The main characters in the play are Treplev, Nina Zarechnaya, Trigorin, and Arkadina.

1 Anton Chekhov, The Major Plays, transl. by Anne Dunnigan, 1964.

The Seagull

The Seagull is about a group of artists who meet at a country estate. The play explores unrequited love, fame, and the unfulfilled potential of life.

The genre of the play is considered to be tragicomedy. Chekhov viewed all his plays as comedies, but their original director, Konstantin Stanislavski, interpreted them as tragedies.

In Act 2, Konstantin Treplev kills a seagull and lays it at Nina Zarechnaya’s feet. He uses the dead seagull as a metaphor for the destructive force of his unrequited love for Nina – if she doesn't love him back, he'll kill himself just like he killed the seagull. The seagull foreshadows the end of the play when Treplev takes his own life. 


The seagull in Chekhov's play is an evolving symbol. For Treplev, the seagull that he kills symbolises the destructive force of his unrequited love for Nina. For Nina, the seagull stands for freedom at first, but it later signifies the loss of her innocence. 

Additionally, the seagull foreshadows both Treplev's suicide and the relationship between Nina and Trigorin.

Chekhov wrote The Seagull in 1895.

Final The Seagull Quiz

Question

Which dramatic tecnhique involves important events taking place off stage?

Show answer

Answer

Indirect action

Show question

Question

The action in the play takes place in...?

Show answer

Answer

 Sorin's estate in the countryside

Show question

Question

Trigorin is...?

Show answer

Answer

a writer

Show question

Question

True or false: Trigorin has an affair with Nina.

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

How long is the interval between Act 3 and Act 4?

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Answer

2 years

Show question

Question

True or false: at the beginning of the play Nina wants to become a famous writer.

Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

Question

True or false: most of the characters in the play suffer from unrequited love.

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

True or false: Arkadina is a caring mother figure.

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Answer

False.

Show question

Question

Which character learns that fame isn't the most important thing in art?

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Answer

Nina

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Question

Which character is a writer who publishes his stories under a pseudonym?

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Answer

Treplev 

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Question

The seagull DOESN'T symbolise...?

Show answer

Answer

ambition

Show question

Question

True or false: for both Treplev and Nina, the lake is a symbol of home.

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

True or false: at the end of the play, Sorin finds out that Treplev has killed himself.

Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

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