In the dining room of Sorin’s estate, trunks and boxes are lined up against the walls: the summer is coming to an end and his guests are preparing to depart. Trigorin eats lunch while a very drunk Masha stands nearby and talks to him. She tells him that if Treplyov had “wounded himself seriously,” she would have killed herself. She vows to “rip [her love] up by the roots” by marrying Medvedenko and blotting out her old problems with new ones. Masha pours a shot of vodka for herself and one for Trigorin—he tells her she’s had enough, but she insists on drinking “openly,” and downs her shot quickly. Trigorin says he wishes he could stay, but Arkadina will never let him—now that Treplyov has tried and failed to kill himself, he wants to challenge Trigorin to a duel.
It is clear from the outset that things have deteriorated between acts two and three. Treplyov has tried to kill himself—ostensibly out of his despair over Nina—and Masha is beside herself but using alcohol to numb the pain. Even though Masha tells Trigorin of her plans to get over Treplyov, she drinks heavily—a sign that she’s desperate to escape her feelings rather than deal with them.
Masha replies that Treplyov is surely jealous of Trigorin—a predicament she can understand. She tells Trigorin that she’s marrying Medvedenko because she feels sorry for him—and because she knows he’s “awfully in love” with her. She asks Trigorin to send her his next book—and to inscribe it to “[Masha,] […] who lives in this world for no apparent reason.” She leaves, and Nina enters the room.
Masha tries to have a sense of humor or sarcasm about the depths of her own pain, but it’s clear that even as she makes plans to marry Medvedenko, she has no idea what she’s doing “in this world.” Chekhov is beginning to show just how truly destructive feelings of unrequited love can be.
Nina asks Trigorin if he thinks she’ll become an actress or not—he replies that no one can “give advice about things like that.” Nina presents Trigorin with a small medallion engraved with his initials and the name of his most recent book. Trigorin happily accepts the gift, and Nina begs him not to forget her. He promises to always remember her as she was on the bright day last week when they were talking by the lake, near the dead gull lying on the ground. Nina hears someone coming, and hurries form the room—but asks Trigorin to “save two minutes” to say goodbye to her before he leaves.
Nina has designs on Trigorin, and is clearly desperate to keep his attentions even as he prepares to depart Sorin’s estate. Nina said in the previous act that she’d do anything for fame and her dreams of success, adoration, and glory—here, Chekhov shows Nina’s devious side putting her plans into motion and latching onto the person she believes can give her a taste of the life she so wants.
Arkadina and Sorin come into the dining room, and Arkadina asks if Nina has just left—and if she’s “interrupted something.” Trigorin is studying his medallion, which cites specific lines from a specific page of his book. Trigorin asks if there are copies of his works anywhere in the house—she tells him there are some in Sorin’s study. Trigorin hurries out to find his book and look up the line the medallion refers to.
Arkadina is clearly aware of what’s happening between Trigorin and Nina at this point—but is probably trying to ignore her own awareness in order to dull the pain of slowly being replaced by a younger, more beautiful woman.
Sorin is planning on going into town, but Arkadina suggests he stay and rest for his health. Sorin argues the opposite—he’s been feeling “stale,” and thinks getting into town for a little while will rejuvenate him. Arkadina asks Sorin once more to stay home and “keep an eye” on Treplyov. Arkadina is anxious that she has to depart so soon after her son “took a shot at himself”—but knows that the sooner she gets Trigorin away from Treplyov, the less jealous her son will feel. Sorin suggests that “vanity” and anxiety over his art are at the root of Treplyov’s problems—not just his jealousy over Nina and Trigorin.
Sorin suggests Arkadina give Treplyov some money, but she says she has none to give. Sorin laughs at her, and condescendingly says he knows his “generous, selfless” sister would of course give her son money if she had it. Sorin says he doesn’t have any money to give either—Shamraev takes it all and spends it on the farm. Arkadina admits she does have some money, but says she must save it to spend on her costumes.
Arkadina is just as selfish with her finances as she is with her time. A gift of money could greatly improve both Sorin and Treplyov’s lives—but Arkadina insists she needs the money for her “costumes.” Whether or not Arkadina’s career is actually thriving is impossible to know—but what is clear is that she’s too selfish to even think of helping anyone but herself.
Sorin says he’s about to faint and wobbles on his feet—Arkadina calls for help. Treplyov (with a bandage wrapped around his head) and Medvedenko rush into the room, but by the time they get there Sorin claims to have recovered and waves them away. Medvedenko escorts Sorin to the other room so that he can take a nap, while Sorin mumbles about resting up so he can make it into town later.
Even as her brother suffers right in front of her, Arkadina doesn’t change her tune or offer any help—emotional, financial, or physical.
Arkadina and Treplyov are alone. Treplyov suggests Arkadina lend Sorin some money so that he can get out of the countryside—Arkadina again states that she has no money. Treplyov asks Arkadina if she’ll change his bandage, as the doctor is late. She goes over to a cabinet and retrieves a first-aid kit, then sits Treplyov down and removes his bandage. She tells him delightedly that his wound is nearly healed, and begs him not to “do any more click-click” while she’s away. Treplyov insists he won’t—he was merely seized by “a moment of insane desperation.”
In a rare moment of affection, Arkadina changes her son’s bandages and shows him some attention and even love. Even as she does so, however, she makes light of his recent suicide attempt and belittles his pain—she doesn’t even ask him how he’s doing, but rather tells him that his wound is nearly healed, thus ignoring and negating his physical pain alongside his emotional pain.
As Arkadina cleans Treplyov’s head wound, he reminisces about his childhood days spent following Arkadina around at the National Theater. He says that for the last few days, he’s loved her “as tenderly and freely” as he did then—he has, he says, no one else anymore, and wishes his mother would stop messing about with Trigorin. Arkadina says she knows she can’t expect Treplyov to like Trigorin—but asks him to “respect [her] independence.”
Treplyov’s fond memories of his childhood following Arkadina around quickly turn to jealousy and resentment. Perhaps Treplyov remembers how his mother used to be before her obsession with fame and validation took over—or perhaps he longs once again to be the most important thing in her life.
Treplyov begs Arkadina to see how Trigorin has destroyed their own relationship—whilst “cultivating” Nina and basking in her admiration. Arkadina asks Treplyov to stop saying “nasty things” about Trigorin. Treplyov insults Trigorin’s talent, and Arkadina retorts that Treplyov is the one with no talent. Treplyov boasts that he has more talent than Arkadina and Trigorin put together and calls them a pair of “hacks.” The two of them trade cruel insults until Treplyov begins weeping. Arkadina begs Treplyov to forgive her for calling him a “nobody” and embraces him.
This passage shows just how much resentment there is between Treplyov and Arkadina. Treplyov hates his mother for parading around with Trigorin, and Arkadina hates Treplyov merely for existing: as he grows older, she’s reminded of the fact that she’s growing older, too. They are terrible threats to one another’s egos, and just being around one another fills them both with insecurity and rage.
Treplyov confesses to Arkadina that he has “lost everything”—his drive to write, his beloved Nina, and indeed his “hope.” Arkadina reassures Treplyov that once Trigorin leaves, Nina will love Treplyov once again. Trigorin approaches the dining room and Treplyov hurries out, stating that he won’t confront Trigorin—but can’t bear to look at him any longer.
Even as Treplyov opens up to his mother, Arkadina pushes his fears to the side and tries to end the moment of genuine communication between them as quickly as possible.
Trigorin enters the room holding the book whose title Nina inscribed into the medallion—he reads aloud the lines her engraving references. “If ever my life is of use to you,” he recites, “come and take it.” Having realized the depths of Nina’s devotion to him, he begs Arkadina to stay just one more day. She tells Trigorin that she knows what’s going on and asks him to “show some self-control.” In response, Trigorin begs Arkadina to “let [him] go.” Realizing the truth of Trigorin’s love for Nina, Arkadina is stunned, and accuses him of torturing her. Trigorin replies that he has never known love as pure as the love Nina is showing him—and is determined to chase it and taste it.
Trigorin doesn’t want Nina very badly at all until he realizes that she is offering herself up to him, no strings attached—and using his own work to do it. Trigorin’s ego is given such a boost by Nina’s bald idolatry of him that he tells Arkadina straight out that he wants to end their relationship and move on to Nina. Trigorin and Arkadina share the need to have their talent, fame, and sexual viability confirmed by another, younger individual who adores them and reassures them they haven’t become irrelevant or undesirable.
Arkadina, now hysterical, laments her “old and ugly” face and kneels at Trigorin’s feet, begging him to see that he is “the last chapter in [her] life story.” She says she won’t survive if he leaves her—and she won’t let him. She flatters him beseechingly, calling him the “greatest living writer” and “Russia’s only hope” while also complimenting his “silky hair” and gorgeous eyes. Trigorin succumbs to her flattery, even as he quietly chides himself for his spinelessness. He tells Arkadina to take him away and never let him out of her sight.
Arkadina knows that if Trigorin leaves her for Nina, it will mean that she herself is old, irrelevant, and sexually and romantically uninteresting to Trigorin and thus, in her egotistical mind, to all men. Arkadina is desperate not so much for Trigorin’s love, but for what his love brings her—attention, validation, and proximity to youth and “new” fame.
Shamraev enters and announces that the horses are ready to take them to the station. He makes small talk with Arkadina, asking her about a famous actor she might know, while Yakov, a cook, and a housemaid buzz about the room, getting Arkadina’s things ready. Polina Andreevna comes into the room and brings Arkadina a basket of plums for her journey—Sorin and Medvedenko enter as well. Sorin is dressed to go into town, and Medvedenko announces that he is going to walk to the station so he can see Arkadina and Trigorin off. As Arkadina passes out tips to the cook, the housemaid, and Yakov, she asks where her son has gone—but doesn’t put any effort into finding Treplyov or even calling for him before she exits with her coterie, leaving the stage bare.
Arkadina is happy to have a moment in which she’s the center of attention, receiving gifts and last-minutes questions as she passes out tips to the grateful help. She’s so wrapped up in the vortex of her own ego that she doesn’t even summon her son to bid him goodbye—in spite of the fight they’ve just had and the physical and psychological suffering he’s recently been through.
A few moments later, Trigorin re-enters, claiming he’s forgotten his walking stick. As he crosses through the dining room, he bumps into Nina. Nina excitedly tells him that she’s made up her mind—she’s going to try to be an actress. She plans to abandon her life in the country and start a new one in Moscow. Trigorin, thrilled, surreptitiously tells her to stay at a certain hotel in the arts district and write to him the minute she arrives—he will meet her there. He tells her that he can’t wait to see her again and gives her a passionate kiss.
Trigorin is excited that Nina is coming to Moscow—but not because he’s happy she’s chasing her dreams. Nina has essentially told Trigorin that her life is in his hands, using his own words—this amount of flattery is more than he knows what to do with, and he is determined to use Nina as a wellspring of praise for as long as she’s able to give him what he wants.