One of the most prominent themes throughout Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull is that of unrequited love. When Arkadina and her family gather at her brother Sorin’s country estate for the summer, the atmosphere quickly fills with passion and longing—but as couples fall in and out of love, betray one another, and chase after those who don’t love them back, Chekhov explores what happens when feelings of lust and love are inconvenient, forbidden, or actively destructive. Ultimately, Chekhov suggests that truly reciprocal, requited love is uncommon at best, and most often unattainable.
The Seagull is teeming with examples of mismatched lovers, yearning hearts, and wandering eyes. As Chekhov establishes love triangles and quadrangles and explores the effects of physical and emotional affairs, he shows how truly rare real, mutual love is—and how painfully destructive the pursuit of unrequited love can be. The strange love quadrangle at the heart of the play between Nina, Treplyov, Trigorin, and Arkadina demonstrates many different kinds of unrequited love: romantic love, filial love, and idolatry. This complicated foursome is rife with bad timing, poor instincts, and the desperation to be loved and accepted. At the start of the play, Nina and Treplyov are enjoying a sweet summer fling. Treplyov sees Nina as his muse—but Nina, distracted by her dreams of stardom and obsession with fame, is quick to discard Treplyov to focus on gaining Arkadina’s respect and Trigorin’s love. Nina’s swift dismissal of Treplyov to pursue her own infatuation with Trigorin demonstrates that unrequited love is an endless vortex—one that devours anything in its path.
Very soon, Treplyov finds himself facing two instances of unrequited love: his romantic and sexual obsession with Nina (which leads him to murder a gull and leave it at her feet in a play for her attention) and his attention-starved, arguably Oedipal love for his mother Arkadina, who rejects him as a son because he makes her feel old, and as an artist because she is threatened by his potential for success. Treplyov cannot make either woman love him—and the fact that both of them are obsessed with winning Trigorin’s heart only sends him spiraling further into feelings of self-loathing and inferiority. Nevertheless, Treplyov continues trying to win his mother’s attention and Nina’s affection, becoming a hollow shell of himself in the process and annihilating any part of him that might have been able to thrive without returned love.
Arkadina, meanwhile, nurses her own unrequited—or rather unmatched—love for Trigorin. Though the two are an official item and have been for some time, Arkadina feels her relationship with Trigorin is in constant jeopardy because of her insecurity about the age gap between them—and, as the play progresses, because of Trigorin’s open obsession with the younger, lovelier Nina. Arkadina prostrates herself before Trigorin in an attempt to get him to choose her over Nina—but as Trigorin sneaks around with Nina and makes secret plans to rendezvous with her in Moscow, Arkadina fails to see just how disposable she is to the object of her affections. Arkadina’s personal vanity is tied to her viability as both a star and as a sexual object—she needs Trigorin to return her love as fiercely as she gives it for him in order to feel relevant. She ultimately winds up destroying several lives in her quest for Trigorin’s undying affection—including her own son’s.
All four of these star-crossed individuals harm themselves and suppress their genuine needs in order to appear as more alluring love-objects to the other. Treplyov lashes out at Nina, botches a suicide attempt (on purpose, it’s implied,) and speaks in childish baby-talk to his mother. Arkadina flatters Trigorin as the greatest living writer in Russia—quite literally on her knees—in an attempt to distract him from flitting off to a younger, prettier paramour. Nina moves to Moscow for Trigorin and bears him a child, only to lose everything when the child dies and Trigorin abandons her for Arkadina once and for all. Each character ends the play diminished in spirit, in health, and in self-worth—and the battered Treplyov even takes his own life. The four main characters’ attempts to win over their unrequited loves—and the devastating outcomes their actions have—show just how destructive and ultimately fruitless it is to pursue unrequited love, and how dangerous taking one’s romantic obsession to its rock bottom can be.
The more minor instances of unrequited love throughout the play are equally emotional and destabilizing for the characters going through them. Masha loves Treplyov, and cries to Dorn about her miserable obsession with him, vowing to marry the sniveling Medvedenko in order to rip her feelings out at the “root.” Meanwhile, Masha’s own mother Polina loves Dorn (who, it’s implied, may be Masha’s real father after all) but laments that he will not legitimize their love by taking her away from the country. Medvedenko loves Masha truly, but even after their marriage, knows that she will never honestly reciprocate the feelings he has for her. Even Chekhov’s minor characters are unhappy in love—and as they mourn the alternate fates true love could bring them, Chekhov cynically and, arguably, cruelly demonstrates just how loveless most marriages and partnerships are, and how rare a union based on deep mutual love actually is.
However bleak, Chekhov’s ultimate argument that reciprocal love is rare and fleeting shines through in The Seagull as he explores the frustrations of unrequited love and the futility of chasing the idyllic future that true love seems to spell out. To pine for a love unrequited, Chekhov suggests, is to actively deteriorate one’s own soul and capacity for not only romantic love, but self-love. His characters’ destructive actions in fits of passion attest to the grating, destabilizing force of unreturned affection.
Unrequited Love ThemeTracker
Unrequited Love 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: 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…
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.
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.
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.