Plot Summary of "The Seagull" by Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov's The Seagull
The Huntington/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The Seagull by Anton Chekhov is a slice-of-life drama set in the Russian countryside at the end of the 19th century. The cast of characters is dissatisfied with their lives. Some desire love. Some desire success. Some desire artistic genius. No one, however, ever seems to attain happiness.

Scholars have often said that Chekhov’s plays are not plot driven. Instead, the plays are character studies designed to create a specific mood. Some critics view The Seagull as a tragic play about eternally unhappy people. Others see it as a humorous albeit bitter satire, poking fun at human folly.

Synopsis of The Seagull

Act One

The Setting: A rural estate surrounded by the tranquil countryside. Act One takes place outdoors, next to a beautiful lake.

The estate is owned by Peter Nikolaevich Sorin, a retired civil servant of the Russian Army. The estate is managed by a stubborn, ornery man named Shamrayev.

The play begins with Masha, the estate manager’s daughter, strolling along with an impoverished school teacher named Seymon Medvedenko.

The opening lines set the tone for the entire play:

Medvedenko: Why is it you always wear black?

Masha: I’m in mourning for my life. I’m unhappy.

Medvedenko loves her. However, Masha cannot return his affection. She loves Sorin’s nephew, the brooding playwright Konstantin Treplyov.

Konstantin is oblivious to Masha because he is madly in love with his beautiful neighbor Nina. The young and lively Nina arrives, ready to perform in Konstantin’s strange, new play. She talks about the beautiful surroundings. She says she feels like a seagull. They kiss, but when he professes his love for her, she does not return his adoration. (Have you picked up on the theme of unrequited love?)

Konstantin’s mother, Irina Arkadina, is a famous actress. She is the primary source of Konstantin’s misery. He does not like living in the shadow of his popular and superficial mother. To add to his disdain, he is jealous of Irina’s successful boyfriend, a famed novelist named Boris Trigorin.

Irina represents a typical diva, made popular in traditional 1800s theater. Konstantin wants to create dramatic works that break away from tradition. He wants to create new forms. He despises the old-fashioned forms of Trigorin and Irina.

Irina, Trigorin and their friends arrive to watch the play. Nina begins performing a very surrealistic monologue:

Nina: The bodies of all living creatures have disappeared into dust, and eternal matter has changed them into stones, into water, into clouds, while the souls have all united into one. That one soul of the world is I.

Irina rudely interrupts several times until her son stops the performance altogether. He leaves in an indignant fury. Afterward, Nina mingles with Irina and Trigorin. She is enamored by their fame, and her flattery quickly infatuates Trigorin. Nina leaves for home; her parents do not approve of her associating with artists and bohemians. The rest go inside, with the exception of Irina’s friend, Dr. Dorn. He reflects upon the positive qualities of her son’s play.

Konstantin returns and the doctor praises the drama, encouraging the young man to continue writing. Konstantin appreciates the compliments but desperately wants to see Nina again. He runs off into the darkness.

Masha confides in Dr. Dorn, confessing her love for Konstantin. Dr. Dorn consoles her.

Dorn: How troubled everyone is, how worried and anxious! And so much love… Oh you bewitching lake. (Gently.) But what can I do, my dear child? What? What?

Act Two

The Setting: A few days have passed since Act One. In between the two acts, Konstatin has become more depressed and erratic. He is upset by his artistic failure and Nina’s rejection. Most of Act Two takes place on the croquet lawn.

Masha, Irina, Sorin, and Dr. Dorn are chatting with one another. Nina joins them, still ecstatic about being in the presence of a famous actress. Sorin complains about his health and how he never experienced a fulfilling life. Dr. Dorn offers no relief. He merely suggests sleeping pills. (He doesn’t have the best bedside manner!)

Wandering by herself, Nina marvels at how strange it is to observe famous people enjoying everyday activities. Konstantin emerges from the woods. He has just shot and killed a seagull. He places the dead bird at Nina’s feet and then claims that soon he will kill himself.

Nina can no longer relate to him. He speaks only in incomprehensible symbols. Konstantin believes that she does not love him because of his ill-received play. He sulks away as Trigorin enters.

Nina admires Trigorin. “Your life is beautiful,” she says. Trigorin indulges himself by discussing his not-so-satisfying but all-consuming life as a writer. Nina expresses her desire to be famous:

Nina: For the sake of happiness like that, being a writer or an actress, I would endure poverty, disillusionment, and the hatred of those close to me. I’d live in an attic and eat nothing but rye bread. I’d suffer dissatisfaction with myself in realizing my own fame.

Irina interrupts their conversation to announce that they are extending their stay. Nina is delighted.

Act Three

The Setting: The dining room at Sorin’s house. A week has passed since Act Two. During that time, Konstantin has attempted suicide. His gunshot left him with a mild head wound and a distraught mother. He has now resolved to challenge Trigorin to a duel.

(Notice how many of the intense events take place off stage or in between scenes. Chekhov was famous for indirect action.)

The third act of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull begins with Masha announcing her decision to marry the poor school teacher in order to stop loving Konstantin.

Sorin worries about Konstantin. Irina refuses to give her son any money in order to travel abroad. She claims that she spends too much on her theater costumes. Sorin begins feeling faint.

Konstantin, head bandaged from his self-inflicted wound, enters and revives his uncle. Sorin’s fainting spells have become common. He asks his mother to show generosity and loan Sorin money so that he could move into town. She replies, “I don’t have money. I’m an actress, not a banker.”

Irina changes his bandages. This is an unusually tender moment between mother and son. For the first time in the play, Konstantin speaks lovingly to his mother, fondly remembering their past experiences.

However, when the subject of Trigorin enters the conversation, they begin to fight again. At his mother’s urging, he agrees to call off the duel. He leaves as Trigorin enters.

The famous novelist is enraptured by Nina, and Irina knows it. Trigorin wants Irina to set him free from their relationship so that he can pursue Nina and experience “the love of a young girl, charming, poetic, carrying me off into the realm of dreams.”

Irina is hurt and insulted by Trigorin’s declaration. She begs him not to leave. She is so desperately pathetic that he agrees to maintain their passionless relationship.

However, as they prepare to leave the estate, Nina discreetly informs Trigorin that she is running away to Moscow to become an actress. Trigorin gives her the name of his hotel. Act Three ends as Trigorin and Nina share a prolonged kiss.

Act Four

The Setting: Two years pass. Act Four takes place in one of Sorin’s rooms. Konstantin has changed it into a writer’s study. The audience learns through exposition that during the last two years, Nina and Trigorin’s love affair has soured. She became pregnant, but the child died. Trigorin lost interest in her. She also became an actress, but not a very successful one. Konstantin has been depressed most of the time, but he has gained some success as a short story writer.

Masha and her husband prepare the room for guests. Irina will be arriving for a visit. She has been summoned because her brother Sorin has not been feeling well. Medvendenko is anxious to return home and attend to their baby. However, Masha wants to stay. She is bored with her husband and family life. She still longs for Konstantin. She hopes to move away, believing that distance will diminish her heartache.

Sorin, frailer than ever, laments the many things he wanted to achieve, yet he has not fulfilled a single dream. Dr. Dorn asks Konstantin about Nina. Konstantin explains her situation. Nina has written him a few times, signing her name as “The Seagull.” Medvedenko mentions having seen her in town recently.

Trigorin and Irina return from the train station. Trigorin carries a copy of Konstantin’s published work. Apparently, Konstantin has many admirers in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Konstantin is no longer hostile to Trigorin, but he is not comfortable either. He leaves while Irina and the others play a Bingo-style parlor game.

Shamrayev tells Trigorin that the seagull that Konstantin shot long ago has been stuffed and mounted, just as Trigorin wished. However, the novelist has no recollection of making such a request.

Konstantin returns to work on his writing. The others leave to dine in the next room. Nina enters through the garden. Konstantin is surprised and happy to see her. Nina has changed much. She has become thinner; her eyes seem wild. She deliriously reflects about becoming an actress. And yet she claims, “Life is shabby.”

Konstantin once again declares his undying love for her, despite how enraged she has made him in the past. Still, she does not return his affection. She calls herself ‘the seagull” and believes she “deserves to be killed.”

She claims that she still loves Trigorin more than ever. Then, she remembers how young and innocent she and Konstantin once were. She repeats part of the monologue from his play. Then, she suddenly embraces him and runs away, exiting through the garden.

Konstantin pauses a moment. Then, for two full minutes, he tears up all his manuscripts. He exits into another room.

Irina, Dr. Dorn, Trigorin and others re-enter the study to continue socializing. A gunshot is heard in the next room, startling everyone. Dr. Dorn says it is probably nothing. He peeks through the door but tells Irina it was merely a burst bottle from his medicine case. Irina is greatly relieved.

However, Dr. Dorn takes Trigorin aside and delivers the final lines of the play:

Take Irina Nikolaevna somewhere, away from here. The fact is, Konstantin Gavrilovich has shot himself.

Study Questions

What is Chekhov saying about Love? Fame? Regret?

Why do so many of the characters desire those they cannot have?

What is the effect of having much of the play’s action to place off stage?

Why do you suppose Chekhov ended the play before the audience is able to witness Irina discovering her son’s death?

What does the dead seagull symbolize?