These opening lines to the play establish several of its key concerns. Medvedenko's fascination with Masha's clothes point clearly to his love for her, which he declares later in the same scene. Masha's sardonic, indifferent reply focuses on her own unrequited passion for Konstantin.
You might also see in the function of Masha's "costume" a reflection of the play's fascination with acting and theater.
NINA. And this one universal world soul is me... me... In me are the souls of Alexander the Great, of Caesar, of Shakespeare, of Napoleon, and of the least of leeches. In me the consciousness of human beings has merged with the instincts of animals. All, all, all do I remember, and every life I live again in my own self.
These are lines written by Konstantin and spoken by Nina as part of the abortive performance of Konstantin's play. It's difficult to pin down precisely how Chekhov wants us to respond to Konstantin as a writer: Is his play laughable or moving? Arkadina laughs at it and Dorn is moved by it. Much depends on the actor. Though there is a real difficulty with the genre of the pla, it's a muddle of pseudo-Maeterlinck and Decadent school writing. In short, it fails to be a "new form" with a clear aim in the way its author desired.
DORN. And another thing. In anything you write there must be a clear and definite thought. You must know why you're writing. If you don't, if you go down the picturesque path that has no definite goal at the end of it, then you'll lose your way and your talent will destroy you.
Dorn's lines closely echo sentiments that Chekhov himself expressed in a letter. The Seagull is a play obsessed with writing and with writers, and Dorn's is only one of several opinions about how writing might best be accomplished. Konstantin's play, it might be said, does indeed go down the "picturesque path" - all effects, and no clear aims.
NINA (alone). How curious to see a famous actress crying, especially over such a tiny thing! And isn't this curious, too? - a famous writer, the darling of the public, someone they write about in all the papers, someone they sell pictures of, someone who's translated into foreign languages - and he spends the whole day fishing...
Nina's soliloquy reveals the reason for her romantic attachment to Trigorin, and the probable cause of her later elopement with him. Nina is fascinated by celebrity, by fame, and by the famous -- and treats the fickle Arkadina and the self-obsessed Trigorin like demi-gods simply because they've respectively achieved some success in their fields. Nina's soliloquy also underlines the boredom of the characters in the country: Arkadina flies into tempers for want of anything else to do, and Trigorin, fishes all day and refuses to speak to anyone.
KONSTANTIN. I had the dishonour to kill this seagull today. I'm laying it at your feet.
NINA. What's the matter with you? (She picks the seagull up and looks at it).
KONSTANTIN. Soon I shall kill myself in the same way.
Konstantin's shooting of the seagull - for no discernable reason - has much in common with his writing: a decided lack of clear aims. The seagull becomes an important symbol - but, classically, for Konstantin, one very difficult to interpret. Konstantin presents Nina with the dead seagull, which, she says, she doesn't understand.
TRIGORIN. An idea just came into my head... An idea for a short story. A girl like you, living beside a lake since she was a child. She loves the lake the way a seagull might - she's happy and free as a seagull. But one day by chance a man comes along and sees her. And quite idly he destroys her, like this seagull.
Trigorin's quote is probably the most famous from the play and one which Stanislavsky saw as the center of its meaning. We don't know whether Trigorin actually ever writes the short story based on this idea, but he certainly enacts the plot within the plot of the play - he sees Nina by the lake, and certainly goes some distance toward destroying her. It is an elliptical, unusual moment which comes at the very end of the second act, and it is almost impossible to pin it down precisely within the play. It is a quote, which, unsurprisingly, has attracted a wealth of critical comment.
TRIGORIN (searches in a book). Page 121... Lines 11 and 12... Here we are... (Reads.) 'If ever you have need of my life, then come and take it.'
This is the quote referenced by Nina on the medallion she gives to Trigorin, and like so many other aspects of The Seagull, it has a complex textual life. It is a quote from one of Trigorin's own stories - appropriated by Nina to say what she means, in precisely the way that Chekhov's play appropriates other works (including his own short stories, Hamlet, and countless other sources) to achieve its purpose.
NINA. I'm the seagull. No, that's not right... Do you remember - you shot a seagull? One day by chance a man comes along and sees her. And quite idly he destroys her... An idea for a short story... That's not right...
Nina here mis-quotes Trigorin's quote from the end of Act Two, demonstrating the complex symbolic and intertextual life that quotes take on in The Seagull. Nina, who, back in Act Two when Konstantin shot the seagull, had difficulty interpreting it as a symbol, still has difficulty with it now - not sure whether, indeed, she is the seagull to whom Trigorin referred. But neither is the audience. And, as Michael Frayn has pointed out, it is Konstantin, lying inert at the end of the play, who comes most closely to resembling the stuffed seagull.
The Seagull Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Seagull is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.