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The Seagull | Symbols


In The Seagull, Chekhov presents paired symbols that work both on physical and psychological levels to propel his deluded characters into their limited and ultimately futile actions.

The Seagull and the Lake

The seagull and the lake represent freedom from ordinary expectations and the boredom of daily life. In Act 1 Nina states she is drawn to Sorin's estate "like a seagull" to the lake. However, as the play develops it becomes clear that her real interest is not the lake but the glamor of a bohemian life such as she imagines is lived by Arkadina and Trigorin. This hollow glamor attracts her even more because of her staid parents' objections. But while in Act 4 Nina seems to confuse herself with a seagull, it is Treplyov who shot and killed one in Act 2 in an effort to convince Nina of the depth of his love for her. Treplyov predicts his own suicide, saying, "Soon I'll kill myself like this." It can be argued that both Nina and Treplyov share a part in the symbol of the seagull. Both are under the control of others: Treplyov by his need for his mother's money and Nina by her parents' objection to her dream of acting. And both attempt to break free, and partly succeed, during the two years between Act 3 and Act 4.

However, both Nina and Treplyov's attempts at freedom are impulsive and not well-thought-out. Treplyov escapes his mother by wounding himself and being left behind at Sorin's estate, where he becomes a mediocre writer. Nina escapes her parents' control to become a mediocre actress. The reality is that neither Treplyov nor Nina have what it takes to be anything but second-rate artists. The climax of the play in Act 4 is cleverly set up by Chekhov to suggest to the audience for a brief moment that somehow these two desperate and battered rebels will join forces and make something of themselves. But of course that does not happen. Nina fades away into the night as lost as a seagull that can't find its way back to its natural habitat of the seaside. And Treplyov sees no other way out of having been more or less stuffed and put into a cabinet like the dead seagull than to destroy all his work and commit suicide.

Trigorin, on the other hand, has found that his bohemian and glamorous artistic life is just as boring as if he'd stayed in middle-class society. While he is a servant to his meticulous and methodical note-taking, it is only in fishing at the lake that he finds any relief from the reality that he is pretty much a hack writer with little or no chance of ever becoming great. It is also in fishing in the lake that Trigorin gets any sense of freedom from Arkadina's whims and demands, or her quarrels with her volatile son. His priorities are quite steady in this regard, as he instructs Yakov to leave the books behind to be given away, while his fishing gear is to be packed for the trip in Act 3.

Horses and Dogs

Horses are another symbol of escape from control and boredom in The Seagull. In Act 1 Nina arrives out of breath to state that she has managed to escape her home for the evening on horseback. Arkadina's planned trip into town is frustrated when the horses can't be spared from harvesting the rye. Horses and their power of movement are also an indication of status. Instead of being permitted to ride in the carriage with Arkadina's group when they leave the estate at the end of Act 3, Medvedenko sets off on foot to see them off at the station. He is treated as if he, a schoolteacher, were no more important than a serf. And in Act 4 he gets no help at all in obtaining a horse to ride home in a storm so he can care for his infant son while his wife and mother-in-law ignore this boring family obligation.

A barking dog, on the other hand, is a contrasting symbol of ownership and control. Shamrayev's dog barks all night, keeping Sorin awake because he has been chained outside to guard a store of millet. Millet is a grass seed with good nutritional value that can, like rye, grow in very dry conditions. It is therefore a precious commodity to Shamrayev who, as Sorin darkly remarks, also takes a good share of the profit off the rye grown on Sorin's lands. Neither his daughter nor his wife can stand up to his arbitrary and rigid control any more than Sorin can, so instead, all three try to evade the issue entirely.

Red Flowers and Brightly Colored Blouses

The symbolism of youthful beauty in young Russian girls is associated with red flowers and the color red in The Seagull. In Act 1 and again in Act 4, Arkadina's habit of wearing brightly colored blouses favored by young Russian girls is mentioned. Meanwhile, Masha broods in black or dark-colored clothing and acts like an old woman, and her mother furiously tears apart the flowers Nina has gathered and given to Dorn.

The Medallion and the Decoration

The medallion and the decoration symbolize hope of passage from an undesired to a desired condition. Both of these symbols appear in Act 3, as Arkadina prepares to leave the estate in order to get Trigorin out of the way before Treplyov can challenge him to a duel. Sorin presents the first one when he dresses up as if going to meet the imperial family of Russia. His outfit includes the conspicuous display of his decoration for public service, which he wears around his neck. The implication here is that he thinks that by displaying this symbol of his life's achievements, he may be able to convince his sister to take him away with her into the charming diversions of the city. The ploy doesn't work, and she instructs him to stay behind to care for Treplyov's self-inflicted wound as if he were a petulant child playing dress-up rather than her brother.

The medallion Nina gives as a gift to Trigorin is intended as a different kind of passport to where she wants to go. When she gives it to him he kisses it as if it were a religious medallion. But it is the inscription she has had engraved into the medallion that serves to really get his attention, especially as it refers to a phrase of his own writing. It suggests that Nina is willing to give her life to him to become an actress. This plan is one she knows she can't carry out entirely on her own, so by making this offer and persuading herself, and then Trigorin, that she is in love with him, she secures his support. As things turn out, however, even the medallion doesn't secure for her the success she hoped for, and she returns two years later, having been abandoned by Trigorin.

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