The Seagull touched on many things, but I think what stood out to me most was the disappointment each and every character feels over the course of the play. Not a single character could ever be described as happy in the play and, instead, each inhabits his own little world of melancholy. None of their lives have turned out quite as they would have liked for no one is truly satisfied by their existence—it is just that, an existence. Mundane, unexciting, repetitive. Chekhov purposefully emphasizes that tedium in depicting only scenes with very little action, which are instead filled with the everyday routine. Near the end of the play, Sorin, who has said very little of remark up until this point, suggests an idea for a short story which would be titled “The Man Who Wanted To,” obviously referencing himself. Sorin, nearing the end of his life, is not satisfied. Yes, he had a good job and was well off all his life as the others are quick to point out to him, but he was not happy or fulfilled. He was not able to do all the things he had wanted to, be all the things he had wanted to be. He simply was. It’s interesting that none of the other characters really recognize this. They insist that Sorin really has very little to complain about, while continuing to concentrate on their own problems. Sorin, not being quite so inclined to self-pity as ever other character in the play, laughs at himself self-deprecatingly and falls asleep.
As for the other characters, perhaps it would be best to start by tracing the lines of their unrequited loves. Medvedenko loves Masha, but Masha loves Kostya, who loves Nina, who is infatuated with Trigorin, who tosses her away like an old plaything after a couple of months and returns to Irina who lost him to Nina in the first place. And not to forget, Paulina loves Dorn, despite that she is married to Shamraev, and Dorn appears to be completely apathetic towards her. In a play with so few characters, nearly all of the relationships between the characters are predicated on unrequited love. Indeed, unrequited love is the only kind of love present in the play, except, perhaps, for the paternal love Dorn feels for Masha. What does this mean? To love unrequitedly, according to Chekhov, is to be in the ultimate state of dissatisfaction. One cannot be fulfilled if one is not loved in return, and so not a single character in the play has the ability to be happy as none of their loves are mutual. Not even Irina loves Kostya as a mother should. And, it seems, this is how things are doomed to be; there is no way to prevent it. We know that Paulina married Shamraev, though she did not love him, because Dorn felt nothing for her. By the end of the play, her daughter, Masha, has almost exactly mirrored her mother’s actions by marrying Medvedenko, whom she does not love, because Kostya has no thoughts of her, sealing herself an unhappy fate. Is it that by the very nature of love, it cannot be returned? Unrequited love is the only love that may exist in reality? (This is starting to sound extremely Eugene Onegin.) For in the play, unrequited love is presented sympathetically, but the moment a love becomes mutual it begins to tear itself apart, as in the case of Nina and Trigorin, until it has once again become unrequited. Nina becomes infatuated with Trigorin, the idea of him, and he with the idea of her, but it cannot last; he destroys her “out of idleness” and her love for him is once more unrequited. The mutual love is destroyed, but the unrequited love remains.
There is also the case of Nina and Kostya to consider. Kostya’s unrequited loved for Nina sustains him throughout the entire play, until, suddenly, the love is no longer unrequited. In their last scene together, Nina reveals to Kostya that she does love him and their love becomes mutual. However, the mutuality cannot be sustained as she realizes, for her experiences with Trigorin have disillusioned her, and she must leave him. Kostya, having realized that his love for Nina is returned, no longer has anything to sustain him, to keep him alive. She loves him, but is leaving him. He cannot exist in such a state and so is able to commit suicide, where before, when the love was unrequited, he was not.
In this, it appears that Chekhov’s idea of love is a rather pessimistic one, founded on the idea that love can only exist unrequitedly because mutuality destroys love. Taking a step further in this, Chekhov believes fulfillment to be impossible. This idea is not only evidenced in his portrayal of love, but, as mentioned earlier, his treatment of each character’s life. Kostya is an aspiring writer, but he cannot really write and he knows it. No matter how hard he tries at his writing, he cannot satisfy himself with it, constantly comparing himself to others, including Trigorin, and surrendering himself to jealousy. Trigorin can also never be satisfied because, as he explains to Nina, his writing does not satisfy him, but more drive him mad. The moment he finishes one story, he must begin another and not one of them brings any sort of fulfillment. Irina is dissatisfied because she is attempting to live in the past, a formula for disaster in any context. Having once been a star on the stage, Irina pretends to herself that this is still the case and cannot be satisfied with the realities of her life. Sorin, I have discussed. Masha, like Kostya, is very dramatic about her problems, declaring very early on that she is “in mourning for [her] life,” making clear her dissatisfaction with her state of being. Masha (as well as Kostya and Trigorin) undergoes a sort of existential crisis in the play in which she (and they) wonders what on earth the purpose of living an unhappy life is.
So is there a solution? What does Chekhov think we should do? I am inclined to think that he believes that this is simply the way of the world: fulfillment and satisfaction are unattainable. Then what should we do with our lives? Should we, like Paulina and Masha, get on with our lives and make the best of a horrible situation? Or should we never cease in our pursuit of fulfillment and ultimately allow it to destroy us, like Kostya? Which is preferable? Somehow, I think Chekhov favors the Paulina/Masha approach of making due rather than creating a scene and fighting a pointless fight like Kostya. But then where does Nina fit in? By the end of the play, Nina has not given up as Masha and Paulina have, but she does not fight it either, as Kostya does. Nina is not so clear on what she wants. Not so naïve as Kostya, not as resigned as Masha and Paulina. Is this the state preferred by Chekhov? It would seem so, for somehow, to me, Nina came across as the only character Chekhov liked in the play.