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The Seagull | Themes


Love and Relationships

Chekhov opens the play in the middle of ongoing and long-established relationships, shows the audience a slice of it, and then invites the audience to draw conclusions about what it all means. Many of the relationships concern romantic love, although it is not entirely clear whether any of the characters truly love each other. Nonetheless, much of the play revolves around their efforts to attain it. Perhaps the most intense of these pursuits is Treplyov's passion for Nina, who doesn't return his love. Readers, however, might question exactly what it is he wants of her. They might wonder that his interest in her may have more to do with the possibility that as his muse she will bring him the success he lacks. But in any case, his pursuit cannot succeed because she is after Trigorin. In fact, she does attain her goal with Trigorin, for a time. In the end, however, he abandons her to her fate, choosing instead the predictable relationship—and income—he receives from Arkadina. But that isn't quite the end of it. In Act 4 Nina returns to Sorin's estate and talks to Treplyov. She has lost her baby and her health and hears Treplyov again declare his passion for her. Despite all this, she proclaims once more her continued love for Trigorin.

In another tangled relationship, Treplyov pursues his mother's love, but she dangles it like a baited hook in front of him. She seeks to keep him securely within her sphere of influence by holding tight to the money he needs to live the life of a misunderstood artist. But again that's only part of the story. Treplyov plays on his mother's sympathies by attempting suicide so she can act the part of an angel of mercy. He knows she needs to believe she is a loving and caring mother despite the fact that she can't afford to, or won't, give him money for a new suit because her own clothes are so expensive.

Masha is in hot pursuit of Treplyov, who shows absolutely no interest in her. She gains no relief from this tormented state of affairs by marrying the schoolteacher Medvedenko and having a child. Two years later, her infatuation for Treplyov remains unabated. While Medvedenko walks home in a storm to look after their infant son in Act 4, Masha remains to fawn over Treplyov. If anything, her love has intensified as Treplyov has had some success with his writing. She hopes, perhaps, that she, rather than Nina, can claim him as her writer and become his muse. Masha is encouraged in this path by her own mother, who rather angrily dismisses the loving Medvedenko so she can observe the progress of Masha's quest. Readers might wonder if Polina really wants her daughter to suffer the same fate as Nina.

Happiness and Wealth

The opening conversation between Masha and Medvedenko in Act 1 of The Seagull lays the groundwork of discontent for all the characters in the play. Masha always wears black because "I'm in mourning for my life," a condition Medvedenko doesn't understand. After all, "you are healthy," he observes, and financially comfortable. He then goes on to complain about his own near-poverty as he struggles to support his extended family. Masha is entirely unsympathetic. "It's not a question of money," she says. "Even a pauper can be happy." So while Medvedenko thinks he would be content if he had enough money, Masha is after something money can't buy. It is gradually revealed throughout the play that what she wants is Treplyov's artistic interest in her, and she's determined to make herself as miserable as possible in order to be worthy of it.

Sorin, too, appears to be well-off, as he owns the estate. However, since running it involves details he does not want to be bothered with, he has handed control of it entirely over to Shamrayev, Masha's father. Shamrayev has taken such firm control that Sorin must ask permission to engage the horses so his sister can take a carriage into town. What Sorin seems to believe will make him happy is to have his life to do over. It is up to the audience to speculate on whether things would be much different for him if he did.

Nina's family is well-off, so of course she doesn't think about money in her headlong determination to become an actress. Audiences of Chekhov's time would know that the hotel Trigorin advises her to go to when she runs away from home is one of the most lavish and expensive in Moscow. Unless she has thought to take away a good deal of money with her, she is going to be penniless and on the streets in a matter of a few weeks. Regardless, Nina confidently takes the chance and pursues her dream. Does she achieve happiness? For a time, perhaps, as she wins over Trigorin with her youth and beauty and steps onto the stage in the city. But these victories soon lose their luster when Trigorin leaves her, when she loses her baby and her health, and when she never becomes more than a second-rate actress.

Youth and Age

Age makes a difference according to gender in The Seagull every bit as much as it does in today's society. While men can be of any age and still be attractive to young women (as long as they have money), young women have a very limited span of youth during which to capture and keep a man's interest. The capture is usually accomplished by marriage. However, Chekhov suggests in this play that the bohemian lifestyle of artists has as its own rules that are every bit as restrictive as those of middle-class society.

The ticking clock of age is most apparent to Arkadina, who employs all her feminine wiles to cling to the illusion of youth any way she can. Treplyov speculates in Act 1 that he irritates his mother most because his presence reminds her of her age, whereas on stage she can pretend she's any age she likes. Arkadina has taken up with Trigorin, a writer who is only slightly older than her own son, and she pulls out all her acting skills to keep him from transferring his attention from her to the much younger Nina. Chronological age is reversed in Act 2, as Masha, although young, goes about wearing black and mourning her miserable life like an old woman. Arkadina, on the other hand, who is considerably older, dances about wearing brightly colored blouses and lives in the present as if she were younger than Masha.

Arkadina's brother, Sorin, thinks himself old and infirm, although it's not clear to readers how much of this is in his imagination. He is 60 years old, but is that why he appears infirm, or is he a hypochondriac? He whines a good deal about his missed opportunities and regrets, bemoaning the fact that no woman was interested in him and he never married. He keeps wishing, like a child, that he was anything except what he is. Meanwhile, Dorn tries to bolster him with pep talks and valerian drops instead of the medicines he might administer if he thought Sorin were really sick.

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