19th Century Russia

Known as the Peredvizhniki (Travelers, Wanderers, Itinerants)

Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull is a play about the romantic and artistic conflicts of four main characters. Written and set in the late 19th century in Russia,  the play is set in the midst of Russia’s social and political reform. The Seagull does not only draw on unspoken and unresolved social issues of society of the time, therefore, but also demonstrates the realism of life through the symbolic interactions of the characters with nature.

Mid-19th century Russia underwent social and cultural reform and began to adopt a new, modern way of thinking (Martin, 850). Russian population was growing in education, and learning new ways to self-govern, which lead to a much more enlightened and ambitious society. Based on Martin’s article History, Memory and Modernization of the 19th Century Urban Russia, we realize that art and literature was now also influenced by social changes and groups, “the new literature grew out of the debates surrounding the Great Reforms and reflected the ethos of the emerging intelligentsia (Martin, 840)”. Moreover, as education levels rose, realism became an important aspect of Russian society as people were now drawing more on nature (Martin, 850). This did not necessarily mean that Russia only drew on the physical nature but was also concerned with the spiritual nature of humanity. Through the writing of memoirs and biographies, the Russian population was progressing towards a more realistic society; one which focused on the natural aspects of the physical and spiritual world (Martin, 839). Chekhov successfully reflected the naturalistic person of 19th century Russia, by giving The Seagull a realistic actuality. In other words, he created a natural world, of familiar and common problems among the characters’ relationships, few of which the audience could relate to and understand. Furthermore, not only did Chekhov create a world in which the characters are faced with realistic problems, he gave the audience an ordinary set, or rather a real place. Furthermore, in the words of Emile Zola, “Instead of imagining an adventure, complicating it, and arranging a series of theatrical effects to lead to a final conclusion, we simply take from life the story of a being or a group of beings whose acts we faithfully set down (Lahr, 137)”. Similarly, Chekhov took this idea of realism that coincided with Russian population of the time, and their progression towards realism and naturalism, and applied it to his work. Chekhov “applies this discipline to the ailing conventional drama of his time (Lahr, 138)”.

At this time, Chekhov was also concerned with the “man’s impotence in such a vast and cold space (Polotskaya, 18)”. In the 19th century, Europe saw Russia as being a cold country and consequently the cold climate was destroying human physique (Polotskaya, 18). Chekhov also appeared to have issues with the endless land Russia had, making it hard for a person to live and aspire to something that was presumably so far away (Polotskaya, 19-24). Chekhov was convinced that social reform could only happen if and when Russian population came closer. He stated “I have faith in individuals, I seek salvation in individual people, whether intellectuals or peasants. They are scattered all over Russia, they have power, although they are scarce (Polotskaya, 26)”. Here we draw on the symbols Chekhov has in The Seagull. Chekhov clearly used characteristics of nature to make these relationships and bring out different aspects of Russia’s social reform at the time. For example, the lake that is mentioned in the very beginning of the play is first hidden by Treplev’s wooden stage. Chekhov brought nature and art in his play; two important aspects of Russian social reform in the 19th century, which lead to the idea that “an organic, natural background for something coldly intellectual (Lahr, 139)”. As the lake appears later in the play, it is then more of a symbol of power, which reminds the audience that Nature is very significant in the play and the real world (Lahr, 139).

N. Gradovsky (Russian, 19th Century)

Meanwhile, the seagull is another extremely important symbol Chekhov used with regards to Treplev’s life. In the beginning of the play, Nina claims that she is a seagull, which could signify that the seagull is actually a symbol for Nina’s desire for freedom (she explains that she is drawn to the lake). At the end of the play however, when the seagull is dead, the audience could assume that the seagull is also a symbol for Treplev’s meaningless life. Treplev kills the seagull, which Nina always thought of herself as, making the bold statement that the seagull, being the symbol of dependency,  is the destruction of Treplev’s life as he has lost Nina (through the death of the seagull). This in turn demonstrates Chekhov and the Russian population’s idea of realistic art and nature potentially leading to the intellectual being.

According to Lahr, Chekhov was always trying to bring realistic and true sounds and sights to the stage so that the audience would make “thematic associations” of them with the characters (Lahr, 141). He would thus bring human focus on nature and naturalism, just as the Russian population was beginning to live in accordance with it (Lahr, 141). We are once again brought to the idea that the life of the individual could only flourish and aspire when it is realistic and in line with nature.

Works Cited
Lahr, John. “Pinter and Chekhov: The Bond of Naturalism.” The Drama Review: TDR 13.2 (1968): 137-45. Web.
Martin, Alexander M. “History, Memory and the Modernization of 19th Century Urban Russia.” Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 11.4 (2010): 837-70. Web.
Polotskaya, Emma. “Chekhov and His Russia.” The Cambridge Companion to Chekhov. By Vera Gottlieb and Paul Allain. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. 17-28. Print.

By Stacie Argyrou