Two years have passed since the end of act three. Treplyov has turned a drawing-room in Sorin’s house into an office, and it is covered in stacks of books and scattered papers. The room is empty, but lit by a single lamp against the dark of the evening. Masha and Medvedenko enter, calling for Treplyov, whom Sorin has asked for. Medvedenko looks out the window onto the lawn, and remarks that someone should really take down the creepy old stage by the lake.
The time jump that has occurred allows Chekhov to investigate the long-term effects of the large existential themes the play wrestles with it. The fourth act will examine how unrequited love, the fear of mediocrity, and the pursuit of fame have changed each of his characters’ lives—for better or for worse.
Medvedenko asks Masha if they can go home—they have been at Sorin’s estate for three days now, and their baby is at home with the nursemaid. Masha says she wants to stay the night. Medvedenko says he’s going to go home without her and begs her to come home soon—Masha drolly states that she’ll come home tomorrow. Treplyov and Polina enter, carrying sheets and bedclothes. Polina begins setting up a bed on a divan in the corner, explaining that Sorin has asked for a bed to be made up in Treplyov’s room. Masha helps her, ignoring Medvedenko’s cloying goodbyes as he leaves.
Even though Masha said that in marrying Medvedenko, she’d surely forget all about Treplyov, it’s clear that she has no love in her heart for Medvedenko, and even seems to want to ignore him at best and antagonize him at worst.
Polina wanders over to Treplyov’s desk and looks at one of his manuscripts. She tells him nobody ever imagined he’d become a “real writer,” one who makes money from the magazines in which his work appears. She tells Treplyov he’s also gotten very handsome, and urges him to be a little more “affectionate” with Masha. Treplyov leaves the room in silence. Masha chastises her mother for upsetting Treplyov, but Polina answers that her heart “bleeds” for Masha. Masha, however, says unrequited love is silly, and that to wait around for someone is foolish. She reminds Polina that Medvedenko has been transferred to a new school district, and once they’ve moved, she’ll “forget all about” her love for Treplyov.
Though Polina is proud of all Treplyov has achieved, she’s unable to look past his rejection of her daughter. Masha insists that she’s not interested in stoking her unrequited love for Treplyov anymore—but at the same time, tacitly admits that she hasn’t yet stopped having feelings for him.
The sound of Treplyov playing violin in the next room comes through the door. Masha begins swaying to the music, and says again that once she moves, she’ll forget Treplyov within a month. Dorn and Medvedenko, who hasn’t left after all, wheel Sorin into the room in a chair. The three men complain about how expensive things are, and how little money they all have. At the sight of her husband, Masha asks Medvedenko why he hasn’t left yet, and says she wishes she’d “never set eyes on [him.]”
Masha continues to live in denial, believing her feelings of love for Treplyov (and hatred of her own husband) will go away if she puts distance between herself and her unrequited love.
Sorin asks where Arkadina has gone, and Dorn answers that she’s gone to the station to meet Trigorin. Sorin says that for Arkadina to come back to the estate, he must be “seriously ill.” Dorn offers him some medicine, but Sorin scoffs at the idea of taking anything. He begins reminiscing about his youth—he says he has never achieved any of the dreams he set out for himself, like becoming an author, getting married, and living in town. Dorn urges Sorin not to complain about his life. Treplyov comes back into the room and sits near Sorin. Masha stares at Treplyov, unable to take her eyes off him.
Sorin picks up a thread from earlier in the play and begins lamenting his failure to take full advantage of his lie. It’s clear that Sorin feels shame and angst over not having lived up to his potential—in this regard, he is much like many of the other characters in the play who also wrestle with feelings of mediocrity and disillusionment.
Dorn asks Treplyov where Nina Zarechnaya has gotten to these days—he’s heard she’s living “a rather peculiar life.” Treplyov reluctantly explains that after she ran away from home and went off with Trigorin, she bore him a child—but the baby died, and Trigorin fell out of love with her and returned to Arkadina, with whom he’d never officially severed ties. “Nina’s private life has not been a roaring success,” Treplyov says with just a hint of satisfaction.
Treplyov’s apparent delight in describing the hardships and indeed horrors that have befallen Nina shows that he resents her for leaving him behind—and feels, perhaps, that she got what she deserved for chasing a second-rate writer like Trigorin and her own hollow dreams of fame.
Dorn asks how the stage has treated her, and Treplyov replies that Nina hasn’t had any luck as an actress, either. For a while, he says, he followed her around the countryside as she performed throughout the provinces—but her acting, Treplyov says, was always “crude,” “tasteless,” and “wooden.” The only kind of acting she had any talent for, he says, was “screaming or dying.” Treplyov confesses that, though he often tried to speak with Nina, she never wanted to see him—but would often write him letters, which she would sign “The Gull.”
Just as Treplyov takes a perverse kind of pleasure in reporting Nina’s personal failures, he seems happy to be able to tell the others that Nina is not a talented actress, either. The fact that she has signed all her letters to him over the years as “The Gull” certainly brings him a twisted happiness, as well—it means that Treplyov has left an indelible mark on Nina’s psyche and self-perception.
Treplyov reveals that Nina is back in town, staying at a hotel near the railway. She has been back for five days, and though Treplyov has gone to visit her, she won’t receive any guests. Medvedenko chimes in and says that he ran into Nina yesterday, and she told him she’d pay them all a visit soon. Treplyov claims she won’t—her father and stepmother have disowned her and installed watchmen around their estate so that she cannot even get close. Sorin laments Nina’s hard luck, reminiscing about what a lovely girl she was—and admitting that even he was “a little bit in love with her for a while.”
Even though Treplyov repeatedly points out to the others how pitiful Nina has become, they can’t help but recall her bright, sunny demeanor and her naïve but hopeful outlook on life. Treplyov’s meanness and delight in Nina’s mediocrity is highlighted as the others express genuine sorrow to learn what has befallen her.
Arkadina, Trigorin, and Shamraev all enter the drawing room, laughing and talking. Shamraev compliments Arkadina on her youthful appearance after all these years. Trigorin greets Masha and then Treplyov, asking whether Treplyov has renounced his “grudge.” Treplyov, in response, shakes Trigorin’s hand. Arkadina tells Treplyov that Trigorin has even brought along the magazine which printed Treplyov’s latest story—coincidentally, Trigorin has a story in it, too. Trigorin says he is constantly fielding questions from Treplyov’s adoring fans in Moscow, who all want to know what he looks like.
Trigorin and Treplyov have gone from being rivals to peers, in a way, over the last two years. They publish in the same magazines, and Treplyov has achieved a kind of success that mirrors Trigorn’s own. Trigorin seems to respect Treplyov as an equal—but Treplyov seems slightly less interested in embarking on a friendship with the man who has stolen so much from him.
Arkadina and Polina set up a card table so that they can all play a lottery game similar to bingo. Masha asks Shamraev if Medvedenko can borrow a horse to ride home—Shamraev says they’re already in for the night. Medvedenko says he’ll go on foot in spite of the bad weather. He heads out, insisting he’s leaving for real this time. Arkadina asks Trigorin to come over and play the lotto. Treplyov looks through the magazine Trigorin has brought—both of them have stories printed in it, and Treplyov can see that, though Trigorin has leafed through his own story many times and wrinkled the pages, he hasn’t even gotten to Treplyov’s piece yet. Arkadina asks Treplyov if he’ll play the lotto, but Treplyov leaves the room.
As Treplyov looks through Trigorin’s copy of “their” magazine, he realizes that the egotistical older writer has merely read his own work several times and has completely ignored Treplyov’s piece. Treplyov, who writes because he wants attention from specific people—Trigorin, Nina, and Arkadina—is dismayed that his work is not reaching those he wants it to and disgusted by Trigorin’s narcissistic behavior to boot.
Arkadina, Dorn, Masha, Polina, and Shamraev all play at a card table and discuss Treplyov’s career. Polina and Shamraev say he must be depressed because of some poor reviews he’s gotten recently. Trigorin says Treplyov can’t find his “proper voice,” and keeps writing nonsense stories with no living characters in them. Dorn says he has faith in Treplyov and thinks he's talented. He asks Arkadina if she feels the same—Arkadina replies that she hasn’t read a single thing her son has written.
Treplyov comes back into the room and goes to his desk. Shamraev tells Trigorin that a “thing” of his is still at the house. Trigorin asks what “thing” he means, and Shamraev replies that "a while back,” Trigorin asked him to have a gull that Treplyov shot stuffed. Trigorin says he doesn’t remember any such thing. He wins the game, and Arkadina suggests they all go into the kitchen for a bite to eat. Treplyov says he's not hungry. Everyone goes out, leaving him alone at his desk. He sits with his papers, lamenting aloud his “trite” writing and lack of talent.
The revelation that Trigorin asked to have the gull Treplyov shot stuffed shows that Trigorin wanted to preserve either the moment of inspiration for his voyeuristic story about Nina, or the moment that he realized he could be the one to take her life into his own hands and do with her what he wished. This demonstrates Trigorin’s enormous ego and his delight in inspiring unrequited or unmatched love in the women around him.
There is a knock at the window, and Treplyov goes over to it, but can’t see outside. He goes out to the veranda, and comes back in a few moments later with Nina Zarechnaya, who lays her head on Treplyov’s chest and begins sobbing. Treplyov welcomes her ecstatically, claiming to have had a “premonition” of her arrival and saying he’s been nursing an “aching” heart. Nina begs Treplyov to lock the study doors so that no one else will come into the room and see her. He obliges her request.
Even though just moments ago Treplyov seemed to be celebrating—or at least drawing personal satisfaction from—the many difficulties that have befallen Nina, as soon as he sees her again, he welcomes her with open arms and admits to having never abandoned his feelings for her. Treplyov has perhaps been pushing aside his feelings for Nina in order to dull or forget the pain of unrequited love—but now, in her presence, he can no longer ignore them.
Nina looks around the room, remarking upon how it’s changed. She asks Treplyov if he thinks she has changed, too—he says that she’s lost weight. He asks why she hasn’t called on him the week she’s been in town, and Nina confesses that she was afraid Treplyov “hated” her—every night, she dreams that she encounters him, but he refuses to acknowledge her.
Nina, once a lovely and bright young woman, now appears gaunt, frail, and frightened. She was confident, self-assured, articulate, and happy as a girl—now, she is the opposite in every way. For years Treplyov pined for Nina and worried she hated him—now, it is Nina who is haunted by visions of Treplyov.
Nina’s speech grows frenzied, and she urges Treplyov to sit so that they can “talk and talk.” She asks if he can hear the wind raging outside, and says she’s “a gull” before second-guessing herself and saying she was “wrong” to call herself one. She tries to discuss the work of the writer Turgenev with Treplyov, but then breaks down in sobs. Treplyov tries to comfort her, but Nina says she hasn’t wept in years and is in need of a cry. She says that though she and Treplyov have both realized their dreams, she’s still sad—once she dreamed of love and fame, but now she lives a “sordid” life marked by disappointment.
Nina jumps from subject to subject in a manic, uncontrolled state. She can’t restrain her own tears, and continually backtracks through her own assertions about herself, unable to decide who she really is or how she wants to present herself to Treplyov. She seems both to want to pretend that she’s doing all right, and to admit to Treplyov once and for all the true, horrifying depths of her misery.
Treplyov says that, though he told himself he hated Nina, he has never stopped loving her—he doesn’t have the “power” to do so. He admits that though he, too, has realized his dreams as a writer, his life is “unbearable” without Nina in it. Without her love, his writing is “stale” and unfulfilling. He asks Nina to stay with him, or to let him go with her on her travels. She doesn’t answer him, but instead stands up and wraps herself in her cloak.
Treplyov’s admission that he only became a writer to distract himself from the pain of his unrequited love for Nina—or, perhaps, to continue trying to get her attention over the years—shows that he, like Nina, has sought a life in the arts for all the wrong reasons.
Nina tells Treplyov that he shouldn’t love her—she believes she “should be killed.” She begins rambling and babbling again, speaking in half-sentences as she refers to herself as a “gull,” then an actress. She begins speaking about her affair with Trigorin, though she doesn’t mention him by name. She confesses that he “laugh[ed] at [her] dreams,” and her anxiety over Trigorin’s inability to love her warped her acting. She asks Treplyov if he remembers the gull—something a man “comes along, sees, and with nothing better to do destroys.”
Nina continues babbling, telling Treplyov that she has realized that in real art, fame doesn’t matter—endurance does. She resolves to remain faithful to her craft and her “calling” even in the face of uncertainty. Treplyov laments that Nina has found her “path” while he is still poking around in the dark for his.
This brief exchange suggests that while Nina set out in search of fame and fortune, she has realized that fame is not the goal of art. She may yet be able to achieve redemption—but it’s also possible that this epiphany has come too late, and Nina’s fate is already sealed.
Nina tells Treplyov she’s going to leave, and asks him to come find her in the city once she’s become “a great actress.” She is unable, though, to walk out the door—she keeps wondering about Trigorin, and whether he came here with Arkadina. She becomes lost in reminiscences of Trigorin, and then starts reciting haunting, mournful lines from Treplyov’s play about the end of the world. She embraces Treplyov once more, fiercely, before running out of the house. Treplyov, alone, silently rips up every single manuscript in the room before exiting.
This passage demonstrates just how fully being spurned by Trigorin has destroyed Nina’s life. She gave everything for him—but her love for him was unrequited, and he cast her aside. Now, even in the depths of her misery, she can’t focus on anything other than him for very long. The knowledge that Nina still pines for Trigorin is more than Treplyov can bear—Trigorin has usurped Treplyov’s mother’s affections, his lover’s affections, and indeed, Treplyov feels, his own chances at artistic success.
Dorn and the others re-enter the room. Arkadina gaily sits down at the lotto table, seeming not to notice the disarray throughout the room. Shamraev goes over to a cupboard and pulls out the stuffed gull. He shows it to Trigorin, asking if Trigorin remembers asking him to stuff it—Trigorin stares at the gull, but still claims he doesn’t recall anything about it.
In this passage, Arkadina and Trigorin both show the depths of their abilities to ignore anything that threatens their easy, self-centered lives. Arkadina doesn’t notice the disarray in her son’s studio, and Trigorin willfully asserts that he does not remember wanting a kind of souvenir of the symbol of Nina’s destruction.
The sound of a gunshot echoes offstage. Arkadina stands up and asks what’s happening—Dorn tells her not to worry, and goes out of the room to check on things. He calls from the next room, stating that “a vial of ether exploded” in his first-aid kid. Arkadina, relieved, sits down again. Dorn comes back into the room and picks up Trigorin’s magazine. He pulls Trigorin aside, saying that he wants to ask him about an article in it. Once they’re out of Arkadina’s earshot, Dorn quietly tells Trigorin to take her “away from here"—Treplyov, he says, has indeed shot himself.
Treplyov’s first suicide attempt was, it seemed, for attention more than anything. This time, though, Treplyov seems to really want to die—and he succeeds in his goal of obliterating himself. Treplyov failed to win Nina’s love, his mother’s attention, or the artistic satisfaction he craved—rather than admit to the mediocrity of his life, he abandoned it, believing it is better to negate his entire existence than to fail at life.