What's So Funny About Anton Chekhov?

Character Analysis of "The Seagull"

Anton Chekhov in his study in Yalta, 1895-1900
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Bang! A gunshot is heard from offstage. The characters on stage are startled, frightened. Their pleasant game of cards has come to a screeching halt. A doctor peeks into the adjoining room. He returns to calm Irina Arkadina; she fears her son Konstantin has killed himself.

Dr. Dorn lies and says, “Don’t upset yourself… A bottle of ether burst.” A moment later, he takes Irina’s boyfriend aside and whispers the truth.

“Take Irina Nikolaevna somewhere, away from here. The fact is, Konstantin Gavrilovich has shot himself.” Then, the curtain falls and the play ends.

The audience has learned that the troubled young writer Konstantin has committed suicide, and that his mother will be grief-stricken by the end of the evening. Sounds depressing, doesn't it?

Yet Chekhov very purposefully labeled The Seagull a comedy.

Ha, Ha! Ha… Uh… I Don’t Get It…

The Seagull is filled with many elements of drama: believable characters, realistic events, serious situations, unhappy outcomes. Yet, there is still an undercurrent of humor flowing beneath the surface of the play.

Fans of the Three Stooges may disagree, but there is in fact comedy to be found within The Seagull's somber characters. However, that does not qualify Chekhov's play as a slapstick or romantic comedy. Instead, think of it as a tragicomedy. For those not familiar with the events of the play, read the synopsis of The Seagull.

If the audience pays close attention, they will learn that Chekhov’s characters consistently create their own misery, and therein lurks the humor, dark and bitter though it may be.

The Characters:

Masha:

The daughter of the estate manager. She claims to be profoundly in love with Konstantin. Alas, the young writer pays no attention to her devotion.

What’s Tragic?

Masha wears black. Why? Her reply: “Because I’m morning my life.”

Masha is openly unhappy. She drinks too much. She is addicted to snuff tobacco. By the fourth act, Masha begrudgingly marries Medvedenko, the earnest and under-appreciated school teacher. However, she does not love him. And even though she has his child, she exhibits no motherly compassion, only boredom to the prospect of raising a family.

She believes that she must move far away in order to forget her love for Konstantin. By the play’s end, the audience is left to imagine her devastation in reaction to Konstantin’s suicide.

What’s Funny?

She says she’s in love, but she never says why. She believes Konstantin has the “manner of a poet.” But aside from that, what does she see in this mentally unstable, seagull murdering, mama’s boy?

As my “hip” students would say: “She’s got no game!” We never see her flirt, enchant, or seduce. She just wears dreary clothing and consumes mass quantities of vodka. Because she sulks instead of pursuing her dreams, her self-pity is more likely to elicit a cynical chuckle rather than a sigh of sympathy.

Sorin:

The frail sixty-year old owner of the estate. A former government employee, he lives a quiet and rather dissatisfying life in the country.

He is the brother of Irina and the kindly uncle of Konstantin.

What’s Tragic?

As each act progresses, he complains more and more of his health. He falls asleep during conversations and suffers from fainting spells. Several times he mentions how he wants to hold onto life, but his doctor offers no remedy, with the exception of sleeping pills.

Some characters encourage him to leave the country and go into town. However, he never manages to leave his residence, and it seems clear he will soon die, leaving behind an unexciting life.

What’s Funny?

In act four, Sorin decides that his life would make a worthy short story.

SORIN: Once upon a time in my youth I was bound and determined to become a writer – and I never became one. I was bound and determined to speak beautifully – and I spoke hideously {…} I was bound and determined to get married – and I never did. Bound and determined to live in town my whole life – and here I am, ending it all up in the country and that’s all there is to it.

Yet, Sorin takes no satisfaction in his actual accomplishments. He served as a state councilor, earning a high rank in the Justice Department, in a career that spanned twenty-eight years.

His esteemed government position afforded him a large, beautiful estate by a tranquil lake. However he takes no pleasure in his country sanctuary. His own employee, Shamrayev (Masha’s father) controls the farm, the horses, and the household. At times Sorin seems almost imprisoned by his own servants. Here, Chekhov provides an amusing satire: members of the upper-class are at the mercy of the tyrannical working class.

Dr. Dorn:

A country doctor and friend of Sorin and Irina. Unlike the other characters, he appreciates Konstantin’s ground-breaking writing style.

What’s Tragic?

Actually, he’s one of the more cheerful of Chekhov's characters. However, he exhibits a disturbing apathy when his patient, Sorin, pleads for health and long life.

SORIN: Just understand that I want to live.

DORN: That’s asinine. Every life must come to an end.

Not much of a bedside manner!

What’s funny?

Dorn is perhaps the only character aware of the excessively high levels of unrequited love simmering within the characters around him. He blames it on the enchantment of the lake.

Shamrayev’s wife, Paulina, is very attracted to Dr. Dorn, yet he does not encourage her or halt her pursuit. In a very funny moment, the innocent Nina gives Dorn a bouquet of flowers. Paulina pretends to find them delightful. Then, as soon as Nina is out of earshot Paulina viciously tells Dorn, “Give me those flowers!” Then she jealously rips them to shreds.

Nina: 

The beautiful young neighbor of Konstantin. She is infatuated with famous people such as Konstatin’s mother and the renowned novelist Boris Alexyvich Trigorin. She desires to become a famous actress in her own right.

What’s Tragic?

Nina represents the loss of innocence. She believes that Trigorin is a great and moral person simply because of his fame. Unfortunately, during the two years that pass between acts three and four, Nina has an affair with Trigorin.

She becomes pregnant, the child dies, and Trigorin disregards her like a child grown bored with an old toy.

Nina works as an actress, but she is neither good nor successful. By the play’s end, she feels wretched and confused about herself. She begins referring to herself as “the seagull,” the innocent bird that was shot, killed, stuffed and mounted.

What’s funny?

At the play’s end, despite all of the emotional harm she has received, she loves Trigorin more than ever. Humor is generated from her terrible judge of character. How can she love a man that has stolen her innocence and caused so much pain? We can laugh – not out of amusement – but because we too were once (and perhaps still are) naïve.

Irina: 

A famous actress of the Russian stage. She is also the unappreciative mother of Konstantin.

What’s Tragic?

Irina does not understand or support her son’s writing career. Knowing that Konstantin is obsessed with breaking away from traditional drama and literature, she torments her son by quoting Shakespeare.

There are some parallels between Irina and Gertrude, the mother of Shakespeare’s greatest tragic character: Hamlet. Like Gertrude, Irina is in love with a man that her son abhors. Also, like Hamlet’s mother, Irina’s questionable morals provide the foundation of her son’s melancholy.

What’s Funny? 

Irina’s flaw is one found in many diva characters. She has an enormously inflated ego yet is terribly insecure. Here are some examples that showcase her incongruities:

  • She brags about her steadfast youth and beauty yet begs Trigorin to stay in their relationship despite her old age.
  • She flaunts her success but claims that she has no money to help her distressed son or her ailing brother.
  • She loves her son yet maintains a romantic relationship which she knows tortures Konstantin’s soul.

Irina’s life is filled with contradiction, an essential ingredient in comedy.

Konstantin Treplev: 

A young, idealistic and often desperate writer who lives in the shadow of his famous mother.

What’s Tragic?

Fraught with emotional problems, Konstatin wants to be loved by Nina and his mother, but instead the female characters turn their affections toward Boris Trigorin.

Tortured by his unrequited love for Nina, and the ill-favored reception of his play, Konstantin shoots a seagull, a symbol of innocence and freedom. Shortly after, he attempts suicide. After Nina leaves for Moscow, Konstantin writes furiously and gradually gains success as an author.

Nevertheless, his approaching fame means little to him. So long as Nina and his mother choose Trigorin, Konstantin can never be content. And so, at the play’s end, he finally succeeds in taking his own life.

What’s Funny?

Because of the violent end of Konstantin’s life, it is difficult to view act four as a finale of a comedy. However, Konstantin can be viewed as a satire of the “new movement” of symbolist writers at the dawn of the twentieth century. Throughout most of the play, Konstantin is passionate about creating new artistic forms and abolishing old ones. However, by the play’s conclusion he decides that forms do not really matter. What is important is to “just keep writing.”

That epiphany sounds somewhat encouraging, yet by the end of act four he tears up his manuscripts and shoots himself. What makes him so miserable? Nina? His art? His mother? Trigorin? A mental disorder? All of the above?

Because his melancholy is so difficult to pin point, the audience may ultimately find Konstantin to be merely a sad fool, a far cry from his more philosophical literary counterpart, Hamlet.

In the last moment of this grim comedy, the audience knows that Konstantin is dead. We do not witness the extreme grief of the mother, or Masha, or Nina or anyone else. Instead, the curtain closes as they play cards, oblivious to tragedy.

Viciously funny stuff, don’t you agree?