In many ways, The Seagull is a deeply personal work—pieces of Chekhov himself seems to be refracted through many different characters, with the writers Trigorin and Treplyov excising Chekov’s complicated feelings about art and success while more minor characters like Sorin and Dorn, themselves similar to Chekhov in other eerie ways, mirror his anxieties about his failing health, his ambivalence towards the medical profession, and his fear of living a less-than-fulfilling life. In a play in which so many characters experience their downfall due to an inflated or fragile ego, Chekhov pokes fun at those who take themselves (and the idea of a “self” in general) too seriously while ultimately arguing that narcissism and self-obsession are ruinous not just to artists, but to human beings in general—even as he contradictorily uses the play as a venue for his own self-exploration.
Chekhov is contemptuous of his egotistical characters, and yet throughout the play, he renders and explores disparate parts of his own personality through a character at least four times over. Through this deeply metafictional contradiction, Chekhov shows how all-consuming and dangerous egotism is, and crafts tragic fates for the characters in the play who fall victim to self-obsession. Similar to the instances of characters in prioritizing fame over genuine artistry, the egotism in the play revolves around the destructive effects of narcissism, empty self-obsession, and neglect of the things that really matter: art, family, and community. The most obvious egotist in the play is Arkadina, a vain and narcissistic woman whose obsessions with her physical appearance, her social status, and the preservation of her own wealth in spite of her family’s deepening slide into poverty make her so cold, selfish, and removed from the action as to render her nearly one-dimensional. Trigorin, Treplyov, and Nina also show themselves to be egotists—Trigorin succumbs to the flattery of both Nina and Arkadina, even as he openly resents himself for his self-centered short stories and his inability to enjoy life in the moment without thinking about how to use his experiences in his work. Nina, who desires a life of fame and adoration, uses acting as a way to get others’ attention—but when she arrives in Moscow, she finds that her performances become “wooden” and she stands onstage unsure of what to do with her hands and unable to control her quavering voice. Nina has spent so much of her life dreaming of a profession and a calling centered around personal glory—but she is out of touch with the instrument of her body and the limits of her talent, and doesn’t truly know herself. Treplyov attempts to reject the egotism that is, as Trigorin suggests, inherent to life as an artist. He publishes his stories under a penname and stays out of the spotlight—but in the end, cannot separate his art from himself, and destroys all his work when he realizes that he has failed forever to win the affections of both his mother and his love, Nina. He swiftly follows the act of destroying his work with the act of destroying himself—to Treplyov, there is no line between the artist and his art, and he fails to overcome his own egotism so profoundly that he seeks to erase every part of himself.
The second component of the theme of ego and the self revolves not around Chekhov’s indictment of egotism, but around his insertion of his own personal anxieties and elements of his personality and autobiography into the play itself. Even as Chekhov condemns egotism as a personality flaw, he uses the play to investigate key components of his own personality—and perhaps, in so doing, concedes that for all its evils, self-obsession is an inescapable component of life as an artist. The most direct Chekhov cipher within the play is Trigorin—the writer who laments his own destruction of his life and the lives of those he loves as fodder for his fiction. Trigorin chases but never achieves satisfaction with his work yet refuses to change his methods of art-making. Trigorin’s long monologue in Act Two about the frustrations of the writing life and the dark side of fame represents Chekhov’s own naked anxieties about his artistic career and his “obsessional writing” practice.
There are also shades of Chekhov to be found in Sorin, Dorn, and Treplyov. Sorin, an elderly man in failing health, represents the tubercular Chekhov’s medical anxieties, while the traveling (and womanizing) country doctor Dorn reflects Chekhov’s background as a medical professional who carried on affairs during his travels. Treplyov’s writerly insecurities, though different from Trigorin’s, are also rendered with an eerily accurate hand, seeming to suggest that Chekhov at least empathizes with Treplyov’s frustrated inability to properly create “new forms” in his art—or perhaps felt the same. Chekhov was famously insecure about his work, and regarded the opening nights of both The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard, plays written nearly 10 years apart, as colossal failures (in spite of numerous reports to the contrary in both cases.) In injecting himself into his work and indulging the baser, less attractive parts of his personality, Chekhov is engaging in the very behaviors he condemns in his own characters: egotism, self-obsession, and indeed a strain of narcissism. Just like Trigorin, however, Chekhov perhaps felt while he lived and struggled to make art that the artist’s burden was to be forced to recycle one’s own life into half-formed art. He ironically explores the depths and dangers of this predicament by representing himself through these characters in The Seagull.
The self-referential and metanarrative theme of ego and the self reflects Chekhov’s deep concerns with not just the process of making art, but the ethics of doing so, especially when one’s art is drawn from life. Though Chekhov seems to condemn egotism in life, he is forced to admit—through both the characters’ actions in the play and his own insertion of himself into it—that egotism is a necessary part of artistry.
Ego and the Self ThemeTracker
Ego and the Self 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.
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: (Enters bare-headed, carrying a rifle and a slain gull.) You’re alone here?
NINA: Alone. (TREPLYOV lays the gull at her feet.) What does this mean?
TREPLYOV: I did something nasty, I killed this gull today. I lay it at your feet.
NINA: What’s wrong with you? (Picks up the gull and stares at it.)
TREPLYOV: (After a pause) I’ll soon kill myself the very same way.
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: Now I’ve got to go and I still don’t know how come Konstantin took a shot at himself. I suppose the main reason was jealousy, so the sooner I take Trigorin away from here, the better.
SORIN: How can I put this? There were other reasons too. Take my word for it, a man who’s young, intelligent, living in the country, in the sticks, with no money, no position, no future. Nothing to keep him occupied. Gets ashamed of himself and alarmed by his own idleness.
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…
MASHA: It’s all nonsense. Unrequited love—that’s only in novels. Really silly. Just mustn’t lose control or go on waiting for something, waiting for your ship to come in… If love ever burrows into your heart, you’ve got to get rid of it. They’ve just promised to transfer my husband to another school district. Once we’ve moved there—I’ll forget all about it… I’ll rip it out of my heart by the roots.
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.
SHAMRAEV: (To Trigorin.) Hey, Boris Alekseevich, that thing of yours is still here.
TRIGORIN: What thing?
SHAMRAEV: A while back Konstantin Gavrilovich shot a gull, and you asked me to have it stuffed.
TRIGORIN: Don’t remember. (Thinking about it.) Don’t remember!
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.