Two years have passed. The curtain rises on a reception room inside Sorin’s house, which Konstantin has turned into his study. It is evening. Medvedenko and Masha enter, both looking for Konstantin. Medvedenko says that it's terrible, rainy weather outside, before adding that the makeshift theater (from Act 1) outside should be dismantled, as the curtain is flapping in the breeze. Medvedenko then tries to get Masha to go home – their baby is there – but she insists on staying the night at Sorin's. She is clearly, still obsessed with Konstantin.
Konstantin and Polina enter, making up a divan in the room as a bed, which is being created at Sorin’s request. Medvedenko exits, returning home to his and Masha's baby. Polina, flicking through manuscripts on Konstantin’s desk, expresses surprise and pleasure that Konstantin is a “real writer”, earning money from literary magazines. Polina then tries to ask Konstantin to be kinder to Masha, in response to which he stands up from his desk and exits. Masha is embarrassed by her mother's directness.
Masha and Polina then have a conversation alone. Masha tells her mother that, when her husband is transferred to another district, she will have torn her love for Konstantin out of her heart by the roots. A melancholy waltz is heard from the next room: Konstantin is playing the piano to himself. The door opens and Sorin, in his wheelchair, is pushed in by Medvedenko and Dorn. Medvedenko is complaining about his large family and the difficulties of financing it, just as he did in at the start of Act 1. Masha asks her husband why he hasn’t gone home: he reveals that they won't lend him the horses. Masha tells him to get out of her sight.
Sorin asks where Arkadina is, and is told that she’s gone to the station to meet Trigorin. Sorin muses aloud that, if his sister has been summoned to see him, he must be dangerously ill. No-one responds. Moreover, Sorin continues, no-one will give him any medicine. Sorin continues that he would Konstantin to write a short story based on an idea of his. This story would be called “The man who wanted to”, and describe a man who wanted to become a man of letters, to speak well, to live in the town, and to get married – and who never did any of those things. Konstantin enters and sits at Sorin’s feet.
Medvedenko asks Dorn which foreign city he liked best. “Genoa”, Dorn replies, because of the splendid street life, and the huge crowds into which one can just merge and disappear. Dorn asks Konstantin about Nina, and Konstantin replies that she’s well, as far as he knows. Dorn keeps asking, despite Konstantin’s unwillingness to talk, until Konstantin reveals that Nina ran away from home to live with Trigorin. She then had a child which died, and Trigorin left Nina and reverted to loving Arkadina. Konstantin explains that he followed Nina’s acting career around provincial theaters, but realized that she didn’t have a great deal of talent. He got letters from her, he said, always signed “The Seagull”. Konstantin's story closes with the revelation that Nina is currently in town, staying at an inn. Nina, however, refuses to see anyone - her father and stepmother have disowned her, and refuse to allow her onto their estate.
Arkadina and Trigorin enter from the station, followed by Shamrayev. They greet everyone in the room warmly, and Trigorin approaches Konstantin, asking indirectly if he is ready to let bygones be bygones. Konstantin shakes his hand, and Trigorin tells Konstantin that he brings greetings from all of his admirers, along with a copy of a magazine with one of Konstantin’s stories printed in it. A card-table is set up in the middle of the room. Trigorin tells Konstantin that he wants to go and look at the makeshift theater in the garden, as he has an idea for a story. Masha, Shamrayev and Medvedenko have a short conversation about the availability of the horses to take Medvedenko home. The result of this is Medvedenko’s exit – to walk home, despite the awful weather.
As everyone else settles to play lotto on the card-table, Konstantin, at his desk, realizes that Trigorin has read his own story in the magazine, and not even cut the pages of Konstantin’s. He exits, excusing himself, to walk up and down for a while. We hear him playing the piano again from the other room, and the other characters talk about him. Shamrayev notes that Konstantin's writing is getting dreadful reviews in the papers, and Trigorin comments that Konstantin has not yet found his own voice, or his ability to make characters live. Dorn – again – states his approval of Konstantin’s talent and work, though he too can see that Konstantin’s writing has no clear aims. Arkadina reveals she’s never read anything her son has written. Sorin falls asleep.
Konstantin comes in and goes to his desk quietly, overhearing Shamrayev tell Trigorin that they have something of his: the seagull which Konstantin shot, which Trigorin requested to have stuffed (though he claims he does not remember doing so). Trigorin wins the game of lotto. Arkadina ushers everyone through for dinner, but Konstantin says he’s not hungry, and so stays in the room. Left alone, he delivers an impassioned soliloquy about writing and about his old desire for new forms – and worries that his writing is already slipping into old patterns. He concludes that he now thinks, rather than old or new forms, writing is a question of letting emotion flow freely from the heart.
A tap on the window distracts him, and he goes out into the garden to find out who it is. It’s Nina, who comes in sobbing, laying her head on his chest, and begging Konstantin to lock the doors – which he does. Nina hears and recognizes Trigorin’s voice from the other room, and delivers a rambling, complex speech. She reveals that Trigorin laughed at her ambitions in the theater, until she too stopped believing in them. She tells Konstantin she knew she was acting badly when she was working as an actress. “I’m the seagull”, she says, “No, that’s not right”, half-quoting Trigorin’s idea for a story at the end of Act 2. She now knows how to act, she tells Konstantin. Nina's monologue is rambling, almost maddened, and is quite difficult to make coherent sense of.
Konstantin promises to come and see her perform one day, and begs her to stay longer. Nina refuses, telling him she loves Trigorin more than ever before. Nina then quotes a short passage from Konstantin’s play, embraces him, and finally, leaves. Konstantin hopes aloud that no-one meets her in the garden and tells Arkadina about her, as he doesn’t want his mother to be upset. He then tears up all his manuscripts, throws them under the desk, and leaves the room.
Dorn leads the way back into the room, and everyone pours drinks and continues playing lotto. Shamrayev brings out the stuffed seagull to show Trigorin, who has no recollection of ordering it. Suddenly, a shot is heard from off right, and everyone jumps. Dorn claims it is something in his medicine chest bursting, and exits to check. He comes back in, and tells everyone it was indeed a bottle of ether bursting. He then takes Trigorin to one side, feigning a conversation about an article in a magazine, before telling him to get Arkadina out of the room. Konstantin has shot himself.
We return to The Seagull's characters two years later, and (as she has been our focus throughout at the opening of acts) Masha provides the opening to Act 4. She is now a mother, though still in love with Konstantin, and still nagged by her now-husband, Medvedenko. The passage in time that has elapsed between the acts gives us clues as to how the characters are to develop in the future, after the play is over. This two-year gap therefore offers a glimpse into the future, and an opportunity to see how the once youthfully-in-love Masha has become a hard-drinking mother. For a further glimpse into the future, we might compare Masha's situation with her mother's. Compare Masha to Polina - who is in love with Dorn, but married to Shamrayev, who is an embarrassment because of his pedantry and hot-temper - and one sees the woman Masha will likely become in a few years time. Polina is a future reflection, a constructed parallelism, that gives us a better understanding of Masha.
Chekhov has already shown us another temporal comparison in Act 3 (see the Analysis section) of Nina and Arkadina -- both actresses, both of whom are prepared to resort to flattery to win a man who, one suspects, they do not love that much in the first place. Yet the last of The Seagull's three younger characters, Konstantin, also has analogues in the generations above him. First, and most obviously, he might be compared to Trigorin, a writer profoundly aware of his own mediocrity. Moreover, when Chekhov has Trigorin bring into this final act a magazine containing work by both Konstantin and Trigorin, we wonder whether Konstantin might eventually become a comfortably middle-ground writer like Trigorin. Yet Konstantin might also stand comparison with Sorin, who, as his idea for a short-story reveals, has failed to accomplish all of his life dreams. Sorin, as he himself freely admits, is a complete failure, and it is failure which seems to terrify Konstantin. There is an intensification of this ominous mood of failure in this final act, courtesy of a whole host of details: the locked doors and windows of the study, the development of Sorin's illness, the miseries of Konstantin and Masha, and, not least, pathetic fallacy - there is a storm raging outside. Subtext, in Chekhov, takes precedence over text, and yet, it is not until this act that the passions bubbling under the boredom are allowed properly to be expressed. Nina goes mad. Konstantin commits suicide. Tonally, this marks out this final act as different from its predecessors. What before was simply suffering is starting to take its toll and to seriously impact the characters.
Chekhov's obsession with writerly quality also spills over into his pervading sense of meta-textuality in The Seagull. The words that Nina points Trigorin to on her medallion, the lines from Trigorin's story, occur in Chekhov's own short story "Neighbours". Moreover, when Chekhov has Konstantin realise that Trigorin has, in fact, some talent, he has him note the detail of the moonlight gleaming off a broken bottle - a detail from Chekhov's own short story "The Wolf". Critics have often pointed out that the progression Konstantin makes from playwriting to short-stories echoes, though admittedly in a rough sense, the arc of Chekhov's own career. Chekhov wrote once that Konstantin had "no fixed goals and that's what destroyed him", and, the quality of The Seagull's own writing seems in Chekhov's mind. Yet, whenever Chekhov draws our attention to The Seagull, it only brings home the subtlety and mastery of the writing.
Though The Seagull itself might have had clear aims, there are many things which remain decidedly, brilliantly unclear within the text. What might we say about the symbol of the seagull? Seagulls are scavenging birds, carnivores who nest on the ground. They are noisy, with unpleasant, raucous cries, eating largely from waste and garbage. Nina is drawn to the lake, as if she were a seagull: yet seagulls, as well as rubbish, are also drawn to lakes. Nina, drawn helplessly to the celebrity of Arkadina and Trigorin, is destroyed. Might we say that Nina feeds on rubbish and therefore self-destructs? We might make a similarly cynical analysis of Arkadina and Trigorin and the status of their on-off, unromantic, relationship: do we ever for a moment believe that this is a couple truly in love? Or rather, is this a couple drawn to each other for glamour and fame, drawn to the companionship, but without the depth of real feeling we might associate with a "genuine" romance? Are they - like seagulls - drawn to garbage, to rubbish? Is the seagull a symbol? If so, who is - or what is - it a symbol of?
Or is this too cynical, too harsh an analysis? Perhaps when Nina claims that she is the seagull, we are actually supposed to think that, indeed, her analysis, and the analogue she draws, isn't "quite right". The Seagull's characters, unlike the scavenging birds, suffer, are hugely complex and contradictory creatures, which cannot easily be pinned down with such a pejorative image. What are we to make of the seagull which Konstantin shoots progressing from limp dead body to stuffed ornament? How does the moment of its revelation by Shamrayev - at the very end of the play - add to our idea of the play's characters? Is Nina actually like a seagull? If Nina really is the seagull, it is difficult to see her as "stuffed" and "inert" at the end of the play. She is certainly damaged, and perhaps slightly crazy, but she gets away. It is Konstantin himself who ends up, like the stuffed seagull, lifeless as the final curtain comes down. Again, just as with so many other of the symbols in the play, it is really impossible to precisely understand Chekhov's intention. It entirely depends on the reader.
In fact, some commentators have argued that the final line of the play, "Konstantin has shot himself", reads differently in Russian. It does not mean "Konstantin has killed himself", but "Konstantin has fired a gun at himself". In short, there is no firm suggestion that the Konstantin is actually dead as the curtain comes down. It too is left ambiguous.
Like the problematic symbol, metaphor or allegory which gives the play its title, The Seagull remains finally elusively ambiguous. Yet one thing is clear. The seagull Konstantin shot has indeed been "stuffed" in one sense -- preserved in a story which Trigorin claimed he would write when he looked on its body in Act 2. Yet it is not Trigorin who has written the story, but Chekhov himself. And, inversely, as Konstantin switches from plays to short stories, Chekhov turns this idea for a short story into a play. And, though we do not always understand it, one thing about Chekhov's play is thrillingly clear: that he, like Shamrayev's taxidermist, has taken real life and preserved in writing in all its complex, confusing, contradictory vitality.