The Role of an Artist in Life and in Love
Chekhov does not simply write about artists and love, he creates the embodiment of art and love on stage. Through his characters' particular personalities, Chekhov portrays the various manners of being an artist and particularly, an artist in love. All four protagonists are artists in love. Arkadina, Trigorin, Treplev, and Nina have divergent relationships with their craft and their lovers. Arkadina and Nina romanticize acting, placing it on a pedestal higher than the everyday affairs of life. Arkadina places herself on this same pedestal using her identity as an actress to excuse her vanity. Nina exalts acting as well, but, contrary to Arkadina, she endows acting with nobility, sacrifice, and privilege. In writing, Treplev compulsively paralyzes himself in the pursuit of perfection, while Trigorin obsessively gathers details from his life and the lives around him for his work without allowing the work to affect his life.
Chekhov does not present an opinion about the artist or the artist's role in life and in love. No one character is all good or all evil, and Chekhov depicts these protagonists so that we sympathize and question their actions and words. He presents several takes on love and the artist, allowing his audience to take what they will from the examples that may or may not mirror their own lives and those of their loved ones. All four characters pursue art to some degree because it boosts their ego to be admired and respected for their work. Treplev in particular longs equally for admiration for his talents and for his self. His ego is wounded by his mother and by Nina. Success in love and in writing are equally important to him though he is successful in neither arena. Trigorin has the satisfaction of success in his writing, though he is never satisfied, and as he says, always starts a new story once the old one is finished. In love, Trigorin pursues Nina because he feels he might substitute the satisfaction and sense of completion that he lacks in his work with a love that would fulfill the void he felt as a youth. In some sense the satisfaction these characters obtain from being artists becomes equivalent with their feeling of being loved.
Evaluating the Self
A distinction can be made about characters in The Seagull as either self- aware or completely devoid of self-consciousness. Chekhov's setting on Sorin's estate provides an inactive backdrop for his characters to dramatically explore their thoughts and opinions on life and themselves as they pass the time telling each other stories and dreams. With next to nothing to do, the characters explore their lives and their selves. Treplev most harshly criticizes his life to the point of ruining it with his high standards for acceptance and his vulnerability in the wake of his failures. Sorin playfully assesses his life as well, and he reflects on a life quickly fading and expresses his own regrets to Dorn and to the others as he witnesses Treplev's struggle. Masha mourns her life, feeling sorry for herself without the eloquence of Treplev, nor the ability to laugh at herself as Sorin does, but with the matter-of-fact simplicity of disappointment and boredom. When challenged by Sorin who enviously accuses Dorn of having it all, Dorn expresses aggravation for spending his life as a doctor always on call, without a vacation, and at the mercy of others' needs. Dorn expresses regret without self-pity.
Nina too evaluates herself and her goal to become an actress. At first in awe with fame and the theater, Nina believes she will love herself and find happiness if she can acquire fame and fortune. Later when she returns in Act Four, she exhibits less hope than when we first meet her, but she has been enlightened with the knowledge that her life is well lived as long as she perseveres, not if she fails or achieves greatness.
Existentialism and Life's Meaning
The existential thought of the purpose of life with imminent death puzzles a few characters in The Seagull. Masha first brings our attention to this theme in the beginning of Act One when she claims, "I am mourning for my life." She transfers the purpose of mourning for death to life. This point of view sets the tone for the play. Masha bemoans her boredom and dissatisfaction with her life as she secretly hopes it will be turned around with the love of Treplev. If Treplev loved her, her life would suddenly have a purpose and meaning. Without the love of someone she loves in return, Masha views life as pointless and death-like, a punishment that must be fulfilled. Later in the play, Masha changes her mind and marries Medvedenko out of boredom, not love. Her life still depresses her, and she still yearns for Treplev. But being a wife and a mother give her new things to do and think about to pass the time until her death or Treplev's change of heart.
Sorin also wonders why he goes on living. He and Dorn debate the quality of their respective lives. Sorin sympathizes with Treplev because he observes Treplev struggling to fulfill goals like being a writer and a lover that Sorin himself once held as his own goals. Sorin describes the title of a story about him as "The Man Who Wanted." Sorin cannot figure out the meaning of his life. He spent most of it working in an office and he does not know why or how that came to happen. "It just happened," he says. Sorin never had anything that he set out to get. To Sorin, a life without fulfilled goals is an empty meaningless life.
More main ideas from The Seagull
Boris Alexeyevich Trigorin
Trigorin the Writer
Trigorin is a famous writer, and the lover of both Arkadina and Nina. His whole personality circles outward from this core identity of "writer." The need to write and to be read has defined his whole life. It's the reason he's never really been in love. "When I was young I never had the time," he tells Arkadina in Act 3, "I was always trying to get myself published, make a living" (3.96).
Trigorin has a long, long monologue in the middle of Act 2 in which he describes, to the rapt Nina, what it means to write. There's a lot of Chekhov in this speech, including a compulsive need to record the events of life:
"Every word you and I are saying right now, every sentence, I capture and lock up in the back of my brain. Because someday I can use them!" (2.100)
(See "Writing Style" to learn more about how this applied to Chekhov.) So Trigorin is excited to talk with Nina because the young women in his stories don't ring true. He asks Konstantin whether the outdoor stage still exists, because he wants to put it in a story. Trigorin is a creative cannibal, devouring the people around him and putting them through the sausage-grinder of his art…
Trigorin and Arkadina
…which totally makes him a great match for Arkadina. It's a partnership of convenience. They offer each other sex, reinforced fame and success, and just enough attention but not too much. Arkadina understands her role in the partnership very well; just check the Maupassant quote she cleverly evades reading under "Shout Outs."
When Trigorin's head spins with attraction to Nina, Arkadina wins him back with bald-faced flattery. He's easy to convince. "I haven't got any willpower," he says. "I never have had. I'm a limp washrag, always do what I'm told" (2.104).
Trigorin and Nina
Trigorin just doesn't love people. He loves writing. And Chekhov doesn't judge him for that. We might disapprove of his callous treatment of Nina—Konstantin certainly does—but in Act 4 he's not a villain, just the slightly distracted writer under Arkadina's thumb. Trigorin longs to fish. He's forgotten about the seagull he ordered stuffed in memory of Nina, and he's forgotten Nina. But he has probably put her in a story.
So is he a bad dude, or just someone under the spell of writerhood? That's up to you, oh wise Shmooper, to decide.