Chekhov’s play is full of writers and people with the ambitions to become writers. Konstantin becomes a writer by Act 4; Trigorin, from the start of the play, is an established and famous writer; and many other characters confess to literary ambitions. Chekhov explicitly considers the process of writing, its pleasures, its obsessions, and its effect on society.
The Seagull is also full of references to other texts and other real-world writers, with a particularly close relationship to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Konstantin and Arkadina are explicitly compared to Hamlet and Gertrude (Trigorin being the usurping Claudius), and the two plays share an obsession with all things theatrical. Scholars are still unpacking Chekhov's other allusions. Revealingly, the first line of the play is a famous quotation!
Arkadina is a famous actor, and Nina holds ambitions to become an actor when she is an adult. Act 1 opens with the performance of Konstantin’s play, meaning that the play’s first curtain rises to reveal a theater. As symbolism goes, there's hardly a clearer way to reflect a play that's going to carefully consider the nature of theater.
The Seagull is famously a play about actors and acting, and one of its key questions is precisely at the heart of the theater: 'truth or falsehood?' From the play’s famous first line about Masha’s costume, Chekhov considers that humans often “act” deceptively, wear costumes deliberately, and behave in a certain way deliberately to achieve a specific effect. Do we believe people's behavior? Are we ever sure that people aren't acting?
Love requited and rejected
Chekhov wrote that his play contained a “tonne of love”, and it is certainly true that it is full of love and lovers. Unrequited passions are everywhere: Masha loves Konstantin who loves Nina who loves Trigorin who is also loved by Arkadina. Dorn was once the “leading player” in the romantic shenanigans which took place around the lake, and may have had affairs with both Arkadina and Polina.
Nina’s eventual rejection of Konstantin once and for all justifies his suicide, and is closely bound up with his sense of his success and failure as a writer.
The play is set by the lake, and considers as one of its key themes the ideas of nature and naturalness. Konstantin shoots a seagull which he lays at Nina’s feet, which Shamrayev later has stuffed at Trigorin’s request. Here, Chekhov seems to be suggesting that this movement from natural, live seagull to stuffed, dead ornament is in some way how writers capture life and turn it into stories. Trigorin, remember, can only convincingly write landscapes.
Chekhov's theme of nature is bound up with that of writing. The question of the lake, which remember, forms the setting of Konstantin's play, draws our attention to the question of what is 'natural'. Is Konstantin's writing as 'natural' as the lake? What does it mean to write - to hold the mirror up to nature? Or is symbolism more real than what is actually real?
Youth and age
The play contains several generations of characters, and its younger generation – Konstantin, Nina and Masha – seem to be implicitly compared with its older characters: Trigorin, Sorin, Arkadina, Polina and so on. Chekhov is interested in the way present leads to future, and how ambitions can eventually be achieved or defeated.
Konstantin, for example, eventually looks set to become a mediocre writer like Trigorin, and Nina becomes a mediocre actress rather like we suspect Arkadina might be. Sorin compares himself nostalgically to Konstantin. Dorn reflects on his old sexual adventures by the lake when he sees Masha and Konstantin.
Central to this comparison is the way Chekhov structures his play -- leaving a two-year gap between the final and penultimate acts. This allows Konstantin to take a step towards becoming like Trigorin, a mediocre writer, and significantly, allows Masha to take a significant step towards becoming more like her mother: unhappily married, and unable to let go of her passion for Konstantin. Old ambitions and future aspirations intertwine in The Seagull and there is a pervasive worry about success or failure – in all sorts of ways and on all sorts of levels.
Success, failure and fame
Trigorin is supposedly a famous writer, but one painfully aware that he does not match Turgenev or Tolstoy. Arkadina is supposedly a famous and successful actress (Nina, at least, has heard of her) but she is still highly insecure, and threatened even by her own son’s longings to find new theatrical forms. The idea of his mediocrity - Trigorin hasn't, found his own voice as a writer he later admits - depresses Konstantin to the point of suicide. Almost everyone in The Seagull longs for success, though sometimes it is for fame from success rather than for any specific achievement. Significantly, nobody really achieves it -- beyond a rather superficial fame.
Fame and celebrity
One of the key themes in The Seagull is the importance, or lack of importance, of fame, and the extent to which it is deserved. Trigorin, for example, is a famous and well-thought of writer, though he himself is aware that he isn't talented enough to rival writers like Turgenev and Tolstoy. Arkadina is a well-known actress, but, despite her fame, Chekhov (and Konstantin) make it clear that she acts in mediocre old-fashioned plays.
The younger generation are rather obsessed by ideas of fame. Nina, in particular, is star-struck by being in the presence of two celebrities, Arkadina and Trigorin. Konstantin, too, dreams (as Sorin also does) of becoming a famous writer -- something, Chekhov implies, is altogether different from the ambition to be a good writer.
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.