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42 pages 1 hour read

Anton Chekhov

The Seagull

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1895

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

While Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull is now regarded as one of his most famous plays, it was not until the second time it premiered in Russia that it garnered success. Written in 1895 and first produced the following year, The Seagull is set against the backdrop of a summer country home, and tackles The Consequences of Disillusionment, The Purpose of Art, and the price of Living in the Shadow of a Renowned Parent. Chekhov relies heavily on dramatic irony to reveal the ridiculousness of the characters’ plights, landing this genre-bending play most often in the comedic category. It has been adapted numerous times for film, musicals, and as a ballet. The play is still widely performed across the globe.

This guide references the Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1997 translation by British playwright Tom Stoppard, whose plays Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Travesties, and The Real Thing all received Tony Awards.

Content Warning: This play depicts an attempted suicide and a death by suicide. It also contains depictions of alcohol dependency and a brief mention of infant death.

Plot Summary

Set against the backdrop of the Russian countryside in 1895, Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull chronicles the lives of a family of artists and those who love and work for them. Sorin owns the country estate on a lake where the play takes place. He lives there with his nephew, Konstantin, Polina and Shamraev (a couple who works for him), and their daughter, Masha (who tries to dull her unrequited love for Konstantin with alcohol and snuff). In a nearby home across the lake lives the beautiful young actress, Nina, who is in love with Konstantin, and Dorn, the handsome doctor who is having an affair with Polina. Nearby is Medvedenko, a local schoolteacher, who longs for Masha even while she pines for Konstantin.

Konstantin is preparing to debut his new play before his family and friends, starring Nina. The audience consists of Arkadina, who is Konstantin’s mother and an actress whose stardom is on the decline, and Trigorin, a renowned writer and Arkadina’s current lover. The play is performed on a small stage overlooking the lake. It is performed sincerely, but is mocked by Arkadina, leading Konstantin to stop the play mid-performance and storm off the stage.

Arkadina is warned to be kinder to her son, who wants to be an artist in his own right but feels insignificant in the shadow of her fame. Konstantin’s desire for recognition as a writer and Arkadina’s grasping desire to maintain her youth are but two of the many dreams in The Seagull. Sorin (Arkadina’s brother) talks about the mundanity of staying in the country and dreams of a life in town, Nina wishes to be a famous actress, and Trigorin feels trapped by his success as a writer.

As the play progresses, Trigorin begins to capture the attention of Nina. Konstantin, feeling jealous of Trigorin and embarrassed by his failure as a playwright, shoots down a seagull and lays it down at Nina’s feet. He tells her that he will soon shoot himself in the same way. He leaves Nina to ponder the meaning of his gesture when he sees Trigorin approaching them.

Trigorin and Nina have much to talk about with each other. Nina asks to hear all she can about his writing, and she tells him of her own dreams of being a famous actress. As they talk, Trigorin notices the dead seagull Konstantin has left for Nina. The image compels him, and he says he will write a story about a seagull who is destroyed by a man purely for the sake of having nothing better to do with his time. His tale foreshadows the destruction he will bring to Nina’s life later in the play.

By Act III, Arkadina has grown weary of the country and announces she and Trigorin will be leaving. It is revealed that in the time that passed, Konstantin shot himself, as he told Nina he would. He survives with a head wound that Arkadina bandages one last time before she leaves. In this rare moment of tenderness between mother and son, Konstantin confesses just how heartbroken he is over Nina’s roving affections.

After Konstantin leaves, Trigorin comes to Arkadina and begs her to let him go: He has fallen for Nina. Arkadina is unwilling to lose Trigorin to a younger actress and seduces him into staying with her and leaving the countryside. Just as Trigorin agrees to leave and Arkadina exits to pack their bags, Nina comes to tell him that she has decided to go to Moscow to pursue acting. Trigorin tells her which hotel to stay at, and that she should wait for him there. They kiss, ending Act III.

Act IV of The Seagull takes place two years later. A storm is settling over the lake, and significant changes have happened in the time that has passed. Masha, in an effort to get over her love for Konstantin, has married Medvedenko and started a family with him. She is still unhappy, and still relies on her old vices of alcohol and snuff to forget the pain. Sorin has fallen ill and fears he wasted his life, never having pursued his dreams of living in town, getting married, and being a writer. Konstantin has found success at last as a writer, and finally has garnered some respect from his friends and family. However, with Nina gone to Moscow, he finds that his writing does not bring him the same joy he felt with her. Meanwhile, Nina’s life in the city did not bring the triumphs Nina had hoped. Trigorin joins Arkadina, who is in the country to check on her ailing brother, and the two of them seem the least changed. Arkadina is still as disillusioned as ever, and Trigorin is still bending at her every word.

Konstantin retreats to the study for some peace to write. Outside his window, he sees a long-lost, familiar face: Nina. He goes out into the storm and brings her into his study, taking care so that no one knows she is there. Nina, weary and older, reminisces about the times when she performed in Konstantin’s play and first met Trigorin. She delivers a haunting monologue about how she is the seagull. Konstantin begs her to love him again, but she cannot. Her heart is still with Trigorin, even though he has moved on from their affair, and she cannot stay long, as she is booked for the winter season at a theater. She is persisting with her dream even though she has yet to find the success she craves. Once Nina regains her strength, she bids Konstantin farewell and goes back out into the stormy night.

Konstantin feels directionless when Nina leaves again. He tears up all of his manuscripts and then runs outside after Nina. Dorn, Arkadina, Trigorin, Shamraev, and Masha bring the party into Konstantin’s study, only to find it empty. Shamraev pulls the dead seagull, which Trigorin asked him to have stuffed, from the cabinet. From off stage, a gunshot is heard. Dorn goes outside to investigate but tries to keep calm when he returns to the study. The play ends as Dorn pulls Trigorin aside and tells him that they need to get Arkadina away from there—Konstantin has shot himself outside.

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