Later in the week, Arkadina, Dorn, and Masha are together on the croquet lawn at midday. It is bright and hot outside. Dorn is reading aloud from a book, and Arkadina and Masha are standing side-by-side. Arkadina asks Dorn to tell her who is younger—her or the twenty-two-year-old Masha. Dorn says Arkadina is younger. Arkadina says that though she’s “nearly twice” Masha’s age, she is “constantly on the go” while Masha sits languidly in the same place. Masha admits that she feels old: like she is lugging her life around “like a dead weight.” Arkadina urges Masha to take better care of herself and invest more in her appearance.
Arkadina can hardly stand any conversation or activity that isn’t about her glorification—a lovely afternoon reading on the lawn is interrupted by her need to brag about her youthfulness and compare her sexual and social capital to that of those around her.
Arkadina picks up the book Sorin has been reading and begins reciting from its pages aloud. The passage she reads concerns “people in society […] pamper[ing] novelists,” and advises against “loving them” and “flattering” them. Arkadina stops reading, and insists that her situation with Trigorin is different from what the passage describes—she was “head over heels” in love with him before she began wooing him.
When confronted with her own bad behavior examined even from a fictional angle, Arkadina feels the need to justify her choices and deflect any possible criticism to reassure herself that her choices are valid.
Sorin, Nina, and Medvedenko come down to the croquet field. Sorin excitedly announces that Nina’s father and stepmother are out of town—Nina is free for three whole days. Nina, ecstatic, embraces Arkadina and tells her she’s all hers. Nina asks what Arkadina is reading. Arkadina replies that it’s a book by Guy du Maupassant—but it is “uninteresting and untrue.”
Nina, free from her parents’ watchful gaze, is able to realize her dream of living with the artists on the other side of the lake for several days. Nina, whose home life is, apparently, miserable and loveless, craves the attention and compliments of these glamorous visitors.
Arkadina asks where Treplyov is and why he’s so “surly” lately and spends all his time down at the lake. Masha answers that he is “sick at heart” before asking Nina to recite something from his play. Nina asks why Masha would want her to do so—Treplyov’s play, she says, was “so uninteresting.” Masha, however, excitedly states that she believes Treplyov is a great poet.
In just the few days that have passed, Nina has clearly all but abandoned Treplyov. She would rather poke fun at his work to gain Arkadina’s approval than support the man she purported to love. Masha, on the other hand, remains devoted to complimenting Treplyov—even when he can’t hear her. Her love for him, it seems, is true.
Arkadina shakes Sorin awake—he has been snoring—and chides him for not taking better care of himself or seeking help from Dorn. Dorn says that he doesn’t prescribe treatments for patients as old as Sorin. Medvedenko suggests Sorin stop smoking, but Sorin calls the idea “rubbish.” Medvedenko says that alcohol and tobacco turn people into “fuzzy” versions of themselves, but Sorin says that after working in the Department of Justice for twenty-eight long years, he deserves to fill his retirement with some enjoyment. Masha heads up to the house for lunch, and as she goes, Sorin remarks that Masha is someone who has known “no happiness in her life.”
In spite of his flagging health, Sorin doesn’t want to listen to anyone’s opinions about how he might better take care of himself. He’s afraid of facing down the end of his life—and seems to want to live in denial about his age and his health, afraid of admitting to himself or anyone else what stage of life he’s really in and how he’s failed to “enjoy” things enough along the way.
Arkadina remarks how “boring” it is in the rural countryside. She’s sick of everyone philosophizing, and would rather be in a posh hotel room somewhere learning lines for a play. Nina “rapturously” longs for the glamorous city life Arkadina describes.
Again, Arkadina cannot stand any conversation that isn’t about her. Nina doesn’t see Arkadina’s shallowness and narcissism—she only sees the glamour and independence the woman represents.
Shamraev and Polina come down to the lawn. Arkadina suggests she and Polina go into town for a while, but Shamraev says that because today is the day the rye is being carted to town, there won’t be horses for them. Arkadina is incensed, and says that if there are no horses, she’ll return to Moscow immediately. Shamraev blusteringly states that he’s resigning from his position as overseer and storms back up to the house. Arkadina vows to never set foot on her brother’s estate again and heads up, too—Trigorin, coming up from the lake, follows her across the lawn.
Arkadina has gotten so used to the trappings of fame that when a request she makes is refused and she’s not treated as more special or worthy than anyone else, she completely loses her cool. Her egotism has completely overtaken her life, and she’s unable to deal with situations in which she’s not the most important person.
Nina chides Polina for refusing to give the “famous actress” Arkadina a horse to take into town, but Polina says there’s nothing she can do—there are simply no free horses. Sorin asks Nina and Medvedenko to come up to the house with him to try to change Arkadina’s mind. Dorn and Polina stay behind.
Nina clearly also believes that famous people should be afforded special, preferential treatment—the idea that one day she could be afforded such treatment after years of being mistreated by her parents is one of the things, perhaps, driving her goals of achieving fame and fortune.
Polina tells Dorn that Shamraev’s “crudeness” and his penchant for squabbling with guests is making her feel “ill.” She begs Dorn to take her away from her life so that they can be together at last—Dorn, however, says that, at fifty-five, he’s too old to change the course of his life. Polina accuses him of rejecting her because he wants to chase other women—she says she’s “sick with jealousy.”
Polina and Dorn, too, are locked in a dance of unrequited love. Chekhov has populated this play with people willing to emotionally—and physically—debase themselves in pursuit of the ones they love, showing how the same kind of pain and destruction manifests in people from all walks of life.
Nina walks by picking flowers on the lawn—Dorn asks her how things are going inside. Nina reports that Arkadina is crying and Sorin is having an asthma attack. Dorn stands up to head inside so that he can give them both some calming valerian, and Nina urges him to take the flowers in to them. Polina follows him, ripping the flowers from his hands and tearing them up as they near the house and get out of Nina’s line of sight.
Polina is frustrated that Dorn will barely give her the time of day, but rushes to the aid of others when they’re in physical or emotional need.
Alone on the lawn, Nina remarks how odd the behavior of these bohemian people is—it’s strange, she thinks, to see “a famous actress crying, and over such a trivial matter,” while her paramour, a “best-selling author,” spends his whole days down at the lake by himself. Nina admits that she always thought that famous people were “proud” and “inaccessible,” but now sees that they are, more or less, just like “anybody else.”
Nina idealizes fame so greatly that she doesn’t seem to realize celebrities and artists, too, often behave badly. Nina’s dangerous equation of artistic merit with inner goodness will lead to several problems for her in the future as she chases down fame and celebrity at great cost to her own moral values and physical well-being.
Treplyov approaches Nina, “carrying a rifle and a slain gull.” After confirming that Nina is alone, he sets the gull down at her feet. Nina asks him what it means—Treplyov doesn’t answer, but says only that he killed the gull and now wants to lay it at her feet. Nina asks Treplyov what’s wrong with him. He tells her that he’ll soon kill himself “the very same way” he killed the gull. Nina tells Treplyov that she doesn’t recognize who he is anymore—he’s always talking in codes and symbols lately, but though she recognizes the gull as one of his symbols, she’s “too ordinary” to understand him.
In one of the most iconic and well-known scenes in the entire play, Treplyov brings a dead gull he has killed to set at Nina’s feet—informing or threatening her that he wants the same fate for himself, and implying that Nina’s indifference towards him will be the cause of his death. Nina, who once enjoyed Treplyov’s symbolic gestures and esoteric behavior, now plays dumb and insists she has no idea what he’s trying to do—when in all likelihood, she just wants to distance herself even further from him rather than play his games any longer.
Treplyov says he believes Nina stopped loving him the night of his “fiasco” of a play—he can’t stand her sudden coldness towards him, and he is distressed over the idea that she sees him as “a mediocrity.” As Treplyov sees Trigorin approaching with a notebook in hand, he tells Nina that he knows she thinks Trigorin is the “real genius.” Treplyov hurriedly runs off.
Trigorin approaches, absentmindedly making notes in his notebook as he mutters aloud to himself—it becomes clear that he is writing a character sketch of Masha. Nina greets Trigorin excitedly. He looks up from his notebook and tells her that he and Arkadina are leaving today—he plainly states that he and Nina will probably “never see one another again.” He laments that he so rarely gets to “meet young girls” like her and hear the interesting things they have to say. He says he wishes he could be in Nina’s shoes and be young again—Nina retorts that she wishes she could be in his and could know what it feels like to be famous.
This scene between Nina and Trigorin demonstrates the voyeuristic and indeed cannibalistic side of Trigorin—he wants to use the experiences of others to inform his own work, and is transparently working on a piece about Masha while simultaneously lamenting that he can’t use Nina as a form of research. Nina, however, is blind to Trigorin’s machinations, so dazzled is she by his glamour and fame.
Trigorin says that no matter how much praise he receives, it’s never enough—but Nina can’t stop waxing poetic about what it must be like to live a “brilliant, meaningful” life full of art, beauty, and fame. Trigorin tells Nina that she’s upsetting him—he decides to tell her the truth about his “beautiful, brilliant life.” He laments that he is obsessive about his craft to the point of ignoring real life. Everything, he says, is just fodder for his stories. He is so determined to make good art and surpass his previous attempts that he cannibalizes his own friendships, interactions, and feelings for his work—he “know[s] no peace,” and never feels anything he writes is good enough in spite of the unceasing effort he puts in.
In spite of Trigorin’s garish behavior and sense of entitlement to the lives and experiences of others, in this speech, he reveals himself to be just as human and insecure as anyone else. He knows that his motives and indeed his actions are often sketchy or even cruel, and though he wishes he could change, he is simply too afraid of the embarrassment failure would bring.
Nina asks if the moments in which Trigorin experiences inspiration—or even the moments in which he’s just writing—are happy ones. Trigorin admits that writing is “nice enough,” but as soon as his work is published, he begins to find errors and things he wishes he could revise. Reviews always compare him to great writers like Tolstoy and Turgenev, and he fears he’ll never be as truly good as they are. He is never satisfied with himself, he says, and worries that his writing isn’t even fulfilling a “social” obligation to the world around him. He feels like a “phony” all the time.
Trigorin worries that he is a mediocrity in spite of all his hard work. He fears realizing that he has chased success so long for nothing—even as he admits to desiring fame for fame’s sake and sacrificing his artistic practice in order to pawn off the stories of his friends and acquaintances as things of his own invention.
Nina tells Trigorin that he’s working himself too hard—and that even if he’s disappointed in himself, there are many others who regard his work as beautiful and important. Nina says that if she could live as a writer or an actress, she’d sacrifice everything—her family, money, personal happiness. She’d be fine with personal dissatisfaction, she says, if only she could be famous.
In spite of Trigorin’s frankly disturbing confessions, Nina remains idealistic about fame to the point of delusion. She is so transfixed by the attention and adoration Trigorin and Arkadina both receive that she doesn’t realize the gravity of what Trigorin is telling her about the dark side of fame.
Arkadina’s voice rings out across the lawn, calling Trigorin in. Trigorin says he wishes he could stay in the country a little while longer. Looking out across the lawn, he spots the dead gull on the ground and asks what it’s doing there. Nina replies that Treplyov killed it. Trigorin takes out his notebook and jots down an idea for a short story about a girl who grows up on the shores of a beautiful lake, “happy and free, like a gull”—until a man comes along and “destroys her" simply because he has nothing better to do.
Trigorin, transfixed by the idea of Nina as a gull, is the one who plants in her head the idea that she is an object primed for destruction—an idea Nina will cling to as the years go by. Trigorin’s callous treatment of Nina as an object in a story—a story that he himself will later transmute from fiction to reality—shows how uncaring and self-serving he truly is.
Arkadina calls for Trigorin again—but shouts out to him that they’re going to stay after all. Trigorin heads into the house to talk to Arkadina. Nina, alone again, cries out: “It’s a dream!”
In spite of Trigorin having shown Nina the dark, selfish side of himself, she maintains that fame and adoration are her greatest “dream.”