Many of the characters in The Seagull struggle with the gulf between their dreams for their lives and their careers, and the realities of what their circumstances actually look like. From the aging actress Arkadina to the struggling writer Treplyov to the idealistic—but ultimately doomed—Nina, Chekhov fills his tragicomedy with lost souls fighting against the mediocre reality of their lives. In exploring the sadness and shame that come along with failed or squandered potential, Chekhov ultimately suggests that for many, mediocrity is a fate worse than death.
The desire for fame and adoration is what motivates many of the characters within The Seagull—but an equal motivator is the fear of being perceived as mediocre or simply unmemorable. Obscurity is as frightening as fame is alluring, and as Chekhov charts several of his characters’ descents into insignificance, he shows just how painful the process of realizing one’s own smallness and irrelevance truly is. Though the play, at first glance, seems to be peppered with glamorous and successful artists and celebrities (the renowned Arkadina and the respected Trigorin, for instance) Chekhov slowly reveals just how mediocre these characters (among others) truly are, and shows them wrestling with their own fear of fading into obscurity—a fear that threatens to usurp their very lives. Arkadina touts herself as the toast of Moscow, and claims to be able to play schoolgirls and blushing brides as she takes the stage well into middle age. She claims that because she has had an active, full life, she can even appear younger than truly young women like Masha—but her attempts to remain youthful, relevant, and capable of playing any role are transparent and desperate. In reality, Arkadina is a woman aging out of her prime—as a celebrity, as a sexual being, and as an artist, she is no longer in her glory days. Arkadina refuses to accept this fate—she takes a younger lover, hoards her money, and demands special treatment as a guest on her brother’s estate as last-ditch methods of deflecting what she knows, deep down, to be true. Accepting her own mediocrity is too painful, and she staves off any form of reckoning with the realities of her age, her fading stardom, and her limited capabilities as an older actress.
Trigorin, a celebrated writer who enjoys popular and critical appeal throughout all of Russia, also wrestles with his own mediocrity. He knows he’s only as good as his worst review—and is constantly trying to head off criticism from other writers, fans, and even from himself. Trigorin is unable to enjoy his success—or even his summer holidays—because he feels like a “phony” and constantly fears being revealed for what he really is: a writer chasing fame and attempting to stay relevant in the face of a changing social and literary landscape. Trigorin enjoys public adoration, but he knows that deep down he is not the great writer he wants to be: he is not living up to his full potential.
Nina represents the most devastating example of mediocrity within the play. She harbors dreams of fame and success as an actress, and even moves to Moscow to chase her fortune. Between acts three and four, however, the audience learns that in the years since her departure from the countryside, Nina has given birth to Trigorin’s bastard child only to lose the infant early on in its life, failed entirely as an actress, and is now roaming the provinces with third-rate traveling theater companies. When Nina reunites with Treplyov in the middle of Act Four, he remarks on how thin she’s grown—and as the two catch up, it becomes clear that Nina is traumatized by what a turn her life has taken. She refers to herself as a “gull,” comparing herself to the bird Treplyov shot to death earlier in the play, before quickly recanting this characterization and declaring proudly that she is still an actress. It’s possible that in her confused state Nina doesn’t realize the depths to which she’s sunk—but more likely, she knows full well just how sad her life has become, and, like Arkadina, is desperate to ignore her own reality.
Treplyov is the only character for whom the sentence of mediocrity carries the death penalty. Frustrated with his inability to live up to his potential as an artist or a lover, Treplyov shoots himself twice over the course of the play. His first suicide attempt fails when the bullet grazes his head, and the narrative even seems to imply that the act was more a cry for help and attention than anything else. Towards the end of the play, however, when confronted with his own perceived failure as a writer—and devastated by the lovely Nina’s downfall, as well—he shoots himself offstage a second time, and, judging by Dorn’s reaction, succeeds in taking his own life. While Arkadina, Trigorin, and Nina spin their wheels endlessly to convince themselves that they can outrun their critics, live up to their potential, and escape mediocrity, Treplyov doesn’t see the point—he wallows in his failures and hates himself so deeply for squandering his would-be success that he decides to end his life before he can slide even further into insignificance and obscurity.
The pain and humiliation of mediocrity and the veritable sin of lost potential are, in Chekhov’s view, the worst fates that can befall a person. Chekhov’s characters struggle, like animals in traps, against the inevitable—but for many of them, even if they don’t realize it, their fates are sealed: they are terribly, inescapably ordinary.
Mediocrity and Lost Potential ThemeTracker
Mediocrity and Lost Potential 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.
MASHA: Help me. Help me, or I’ll do something stupid, I’ll mess up my life, wreck it… I can’t stand it anymore…
DORN: What do you mean? Help you how?
MASHA: I’m in pain. Nobody, nobody knows how much pain I’m in. (Lays her head on his chest, quietly.) I love Konstantin.
DRON: They’re all so high-strung! They’re all so high-strung! And all this love… Oh, spellbinding lake! (Tenderly.) But what can I do, my child? What? What?
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!
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.
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…
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.