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The Seagull | Act 2 | Summary

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Summary

Act 2 of The Seagull takes place at the croquet lawn near Pyotr Nikolayevich Sorin's mansion near the lake. It is the following day and a hot afternoon. The discussions on art that had been conducted with such vigor the previous evening have withered like unwatered flowers. To fill the void, Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina asks Masha, who is much younger, to stand beside her. "Which of us looks younger?" she asks Yevgeny Sergeyevich Dorn. She is pleased when Dorn tells her she looks younger than Masha, who remains steadfastly morose and wears black like an old woman. Arkadina, on the other hand, is cheerful and carefree. She lives in the present moment as she dances across the lawn proclaiming her eternal youth. Sprinkling her chatter with French phrases, Arkadina describes how best to "capture a writer."

Nina Mikhaylovna Zarechnaya's parents are away, so she has taken this opportunity to keep company with the artists visiting Sorin's estate. While Masha clearly admires Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplyov's play, Nina thinks "it's so uninteresting." The discussion then quickly turns to medicine, as Dorn holds forth on the evils of alcohol and smoking. Arkadina's plans for going into town are blocked by the fact that the carriage horses are working in the fields. Arkadina leaves in a fit of temper, while Dorn's medical expertise is called upon to cure jealousy and asthma with valerian drops.

Nina wonders that a famous writer like Boris Alekseyevich Trigorin should have any pleasure in an ordinary activity like fishing. But she is interrupted in her thoughts when Treplyov lays a dead seagull at her feet. "I was a brute," he admits, "and killed this seagull today ... Soon I'll kill myself like this." Nina recognizes that it is a symbol, but she doesn't understand the meaning. Treplyov says it started the evening of his "play's stupid failure" when Nina began acting cold toward him. "Women don't forgive failure," he says. In an abundant display of despair, Treplyov tells her he's burned all his writing. Then, seeing Trigorin approaching with a notebook in hand, he abruptly leaves.

Evidently unfazed by Treplyov's outburst, Nina gives her attention to Trigorin. She tells him how she envies his fame and wonders what it feels like to be praised in all the papers. She thinks that is where happiness lies, but he disagrees. "You are very young and very kind," he says. He then goes into an extended monologue about the torments of writing. He ends his conversation with her by noticing the dead seagull, and then makes an entry in his notebook for a play about a girl who is killed like a seagull.

Analysis

Flowers, with their bright colors and brief glory, appear repeatedly in Act 2. Youth is associated with bright colors, especially red. The young peasant women of Chekhov's Russia wore brightly colored traditional blouses and skirts made of either linen or wool. Interestingly, the word beautiful in Russian derives from the word krasny, which means "red." Arkadina's affectation for brightly colored blouses suggests her desire to be beautiful. By contrast, the color of heliotrope is a "widow's color" because it is a dark purple/blue, probably close to what Masha always wears. Color points out the contrast between Arkadina and Masha, who is younger than the actress even though she dresses like an old woman. Flowers likewise illustrate Polina's jealousy and frustration when she tears away at the flowers Nina has gathered and given to Dorn. Flowers are again invoked in Trigorin's falsely modest speech to Nina. It is laced with adorations of nature as he explains his inspiration and how he is compelled to write. "I rob my best flowers of their pollen," he says, and give them to others. The flowers represent his artistic inspiration. And then "I tear apart the flowers themselves and trample their roots," in desperation because he cannot capture their natural essence.

Sorin's opening speech seems to indirectly refer to Nina, who is happy that she's free for three days to spend her time at Sorin's estate. Dorn's pronouncement that the ailments of Masha and Sorin can be solved by the administration of valerian drops is on a par with the proverbial doctor's instructions to "Take two aspirin and call me in the morning." Valerian extract is an herbalist's standby for soothing vague symptoms of anxiety and insomnia. But physical age and deterioration accelerated by bad habits (Dorn expresses his scorn for alcohol and tobacco) are not the same as the "deterioration" of depression and boredom exhibited by Masha and Sorin.

Trigorin's comment about the chariot and Agamemnon is a reference to Arkadina's hold on him. The allusion is to an ancient Greek story about the return of King Agamemnon from the Trojan War. His wife and queen, Clytemnestra, greets him after his 10 years of absence by rolling out a flower-strewn carpet from the threshold of the palace to his chariot. She then strangles him in his bath so that she and her lover can continue ruling the realm.

Nina says she could live on Russian rye bread in order to serve her art. She is referring to the fact that this bread is both dark and coarse in texture, so it was considered fit only for the poorest to eat. Nina's extravagant desire to sacrifice her comfort for art, however, goes nowhere. It is in reality only the false glitter of success that she finds compelling. The trajectory of Nina's downfall is set by her pursuit of the nearest celebrity she can attract. In this case Trigorin, who, pleased by the attention of a pretty young woman, takes up with her in the next act almost as casually as Treplyov has killed the seagull. It is in Act 2 that the seagull and the lake to which it is attracted are brought forward as symbols of escape and freedom from the expectations of middle-class society.

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