At the heart of The Seagull is the question of why writers write and why actors act: for artistic fulfillment, or in pursuit of fame? As the artistically-minded characters within the play—Arkadina, Trigorin, Treplyov, and Nina—navigate their competing desires for fame and fulfillment, Chekhov investigates the destructive nature of celebrity, ultimately arguing that the hollow pursuit of fame, glory, and renown will only end in misery.
All of the artist characters within The Seagull have a desperate need to express themselves—and to be adored for so doing. For Arkadina, Trigorin, Treplyov, and Nina, making art is not enough: fame and adoration are what they want, and though they pursue it doggedly, it ultimately fails to satiate them. The desire for it, in one case, even proves fatal. Arkadina, a middle-aged actress, is a vain woman who spends a great deal of time reminiscing about her younger days and recalling the roles that made her famous in Moscow. Treplyov often remarks upon his mother’s jealous nature, stating that she can’t bear to see anyone else enjoy success. Arkadina is happy enough to see Nina perform Treplyov’s original play, but only because the young, naïve Nina is obsessed with Arkadina and frequently flatters her. Every time Arkadina speaks about her life as an actress, she focuses on money, costumes, and fans—never on the roles themselves, or on how her art has helped her understand herself or the world around her. Ultimately, Arkadina is so dismissive of anyone else’s attempts at art-making that she alienates those who genuinely look up to her—namely, her son and Nina. She admits that she never reads Treplyov’s published work, and though she never comments upon Nina’s grave misfortunes in Moscow, it’s implied that she has ignored her protégé’s troubles because she sees Nina as a threat. By the end of the play, Arkadina is so disconnected from everyone around her that she plays bingo gaily while her son goes into the next room to commit suicide, a tragedy that demonstrates just how destructive the hollow pursuit of fame can be on artists, and on their relationships with others.
Trigorin, Arkadina’s younger lover, is a famous writer of fiction who publishes widely and enjoys a healthy fanbase back in Moscow. Nina is perhaps even more in awe of Trigorin’s fame than she is of Arkadina’s—Nina harbors romantic feelings for Trigorin, and seems to believe that part of being famous is having a famous lover. Trigorin, on the other hand, is ambivalent about his own fame—at least outwardly. He complains to Nina that no matter how many people tell him they enjoy his work, he never feels it’s good enough, and rarely experiences even a moment’s artistic satisfaction. However, Trigorin complicates his own statement when he succumbs, time and time again, to the flattery that both Nina and Arkadina dole out in attempts to make Trigorin love them. This shows that while Trigorin seems driven as an artist, his motives for writing are still tied to achieving his own personal glory.
Treplyov, Arkadina’s son, also longs to be a writer. Treplyov is the character who is the most driven by the pursuit of art itself: he says he wants to explore “new forms” in theater, and his work plunges the human struggle between good and evil. This is certainly the deepest material that Chekhov shows any of his artist characters working with throughout the play. However, Treplyov’s motives, like Trigorin’s, are ultimately confused. He wants to succeed as an artist due to his need to unseat Trigorin as Russia’s most celebrated writer in order to win back his distant, judgmental mother’s affection and attention. Treplyov seems to seek fame just as much as the other characters—and yet, in a strange turn of events, it is revealed that Treplyov is publishing his stories under a penname. He has no public persona, and Trigorin reports that Treplyov’s fans in Moscow often beg Trigorin to tell them what the mysterious Treplyov looks and acts like. Treplyov achieves the fame he sought—but he, like Nina, realizes too late that fame will not bring him the things he wants in life. He feels his art is worthless because it has not brought him glory the eyes of his mother or Nina, and he rips it all to shreds moments before taking his own life at the end of the play. His fate suggests that the pursuit of personal glory, as opposed to that of artist expression, is ultimately unsustainable and leaves people feeling empty and unfulfilled.
Nina, who idealizes the glamour of being an artist, sneaks away from her father and stepmother daily to enjoy stolen time near the lake with Arkadina, Treplyov, and Trigorin. Nina loves being around these artistic types, and she takes absurd delight in seeing famous people like Trigorin and Arkadina going about their summer holidays like common folk. Nina has great dreams of being an actress—dreams which Arkadina and Trigorin encourage after seeing her demonstrate some talent when she performs in Treplyov’s play. But Nina, for all her naivete and earnestness, slowly reveals herself to be driven by a hungry desire for fame. She tells Trigorin that she would abandon her family if she could be famous, and openly mocks her lover Treplyov’s work once Arkadina expresses her distaste for it. After following Trigorin to Moscow to seek fame, Nina fails to thrive as an artist and winds up performing in third-rate companies throughout the Russian provinces. She maintains that she is an actress and not the wounded “gull” that others perceived her to be—but years later when she reunites with Treplyov, it’s clear that Nina’s attempts at fame have failed. In chasing fame, Nina finds only subjugation and misery.
The characters who chase fame in The Seagull find themselves alienated from their creativity, their families, and the realization of their dreams. Chekhov argues, through his four main characters’ failures, that to seek fame while eschewing hard work and steady artistic practice is an empty goal—one that can result in pain, misery, and cruel twists of fate.
Art vs. Fame ThemeTracker
Art vs. Fame Quotes in The Seagull
TREPLYOV: New forms are what we need. New forms are what we need, and if there aren’t any, then we’re better off with nothing. (Looks at his watch.) I love my mother, love her deeply; but she smokes, drinks, lives openly with that novelist, her name constantly in the papers—it gets me down. Sometimes it’s just my plain human ego talking; it’s a shame my mother is a famous actress, because I think if she were an ordinary woman, I might be happier.
TREPLYOV: Are you excited?
NINA: Yes, very. Your Mama doesn’t count. I’m not afraid of her, but then there’s Trigorin… Acting with him in the audience frights and embarrasses me… A famous writer… Is he young?
NINA: His stories are so wonderful!
TREPLYOV: (coldly) I wouldn’t know, I haven’t read them.
NINA: It isn’t easy to act in your play. There are no living characters in it.
ARKADINA: Tell me, what’s the matter with my son? How come he’s so tiresome and surly? He spends whole days on the lake, and I almost never see him.
MASHA: He’s sick at heart. (To Nina, shyly.) Please, do recite something from his play!
NINA: (Shrugs.) You want me to? It’s so uninteresting!
NINA: I thought that famous people were proud, inaccessible, that they despised the public and their own fame, their celebrity was a kind of revenge for blue blood and wealth being considered more respectable… But here they are crying, fishing, playing cards, laughing, and losing their tempers like anybody else…
TREPLYOV: You say you’re too ordinary to understand me. Oh, what’s there to understand? You didn’t like my play, you despise my ideas, you’ve started thinking of me as a mediocrity, a nobody, like all the rest… (Stamping his foot.) That’s something I understand, oh, I understand all right! There’s a kind of spike stuck in my brain, damn it and damn my vanity, which sucks my blood, sucks it like a snake…
TRIGORIN: I know no peace, and I feel that I’m devouring my own life, that to give away honey to somebody out there in space I’m robbing my finest flowers of their pollen, tearing up all these flowers and trampling on their roots.
NINA: For the joy of being a writer or an actress, I would put up with my family disowning me, poverty, disappointment; I would live in a garret and eat nothing but black bread, suffer dissatisfaction with myself and realize my own imperfection, but in return I would insist on fame… real, resounding fame…
TRIGORIN: Just jotting down a note… A subject came to mind… (Putting away the notebook.) Subject for a short story: on the shores of a lake a young girl grows up, just like you; loves the lake, like a gull, is happy and free, like a gull. But by chance a man comes along, sees her, and, having nothing better to do, destroys her, just like this gull here.
ARKADINA: That’s jealousy. People with no talent but plenty of pretentions have nothing better to do than criticize really talented people. It’s a comfort to them, I’m sure!
TREPLYOV: (Sarcastically.) Really talented people! (Angrily.) I’m more talented than the lot of you put together, if it comes to that! (Tears the bandage off his head.) You dreary hacks hog the front-row seats in the arts and assume that the only legitimate and genuine things are what you do yourselves, so you suppress and stile the rest! […]
ARKADINA: Mr. Avant-garde!
TREPLYOV: You skinflint!
ARKADINA: You scarecrow! (TREPLYOV sits down and weeps quietly.) You nobody!
ARKADINA: You want to do something reckless, but I won’t have it, I won’t let you… (Laughs.) You’re mine… You’re mine… […] You’re all mine. You’re so talented, clever, our greatest living writer, you’re Russia’s only hope… You’ve got so much sincerity, clarity, originality, wholesome humor... With a single stroke you can pinpoint the most vital feature in a person or a landscape, your characters are so alive. Oh, no one can read you without going into ecstasy! […] Am I lying? […] Do I look like a liar? There, you see, I’m the only one who knows how to appreciate you; I’m the only one who tells you the truth, my darling, marvelous man…
MEDVEDENKO: It’s dark outside. Somebody should tell them to pull down that stage in the garden. It stands there bare, unsightly, like a skeleton, and the scene curtain flaps in the wind. When I was going by last night, I thought somebody was on it, crying…
TREPLYOV: [Nina] made her debut outside Moscow at a summer theater, then toured the provinces. In those days I was keeping track of her and for a while wherever she was, I was there too. She would tackle the big roles, but her acting was crude, tasteless, her voice singsong and her gestures wooden. There were moments when she showed some talent at screaming or dying, but they were only moments.
DORN: Well, I have faith in Konstantin Gavrilovich. There’s something there! There’s something there! He thinks in images, his stories are colorful, striking, and I have a real fondness for them. […] Irina Nikolaevna, are you glad your son’s a writer?
ARKADINA: Imagine, I still haven’t read him. Never any time.
NINA: And so, now you’re a writer. You’re a writer, I’m an actress… We’ve both fallen into the maelstrom… I used to live joyously, like a child—wake up in the morning and start to sing; I loved you, dreamed of fame, and now? First thing tomorrow morning I go to Yelets, third class… traveling with peasants… […] A sordid kind of life!
NINA: You can’t imagine what that’s like, when you realize your acting is terrible. I’m a gull. No, that’s wrong… Remember when you shot down a gull? By chance a man comes along, sees, and with nothing better to do destroys… Subject for a short story. That’s wrong… (Rubs her forehead.) What was I saying?... I was talking about the stage. I’m not like that now… Now I’m a real actress… […] Now I know, understand, Kostya, that in our work—it doesn’t matter whether we act or we write—the main thing isn’t fame, glamour, the things I dreamed about, it’s knowing how to endure.