Symbolism or no Symbolism?

Contrary to what has been said about Anton Chekhov’s use of symbolic methods to establish a realistic view on his play, The Seagull, John Reid challenges these assumptions in a 1998 article called Matter and Spirit in The Seagull. He begins with an example of a 1994 production of The Seagull at the National Theater in London, where, according to him, the lighted siluette of the stuffed seagull was not only an aesthetically distasteful ending to the play, but also confusing to the audience (Reid, 1). According to Reid, the seagull only acted as faulty corniness (Reid, 1). Moreover, Reid makes a point that the seagull could have been anything and everything else, as the director merely used it for a theatrical closure and thus did not draw on its symbolic meaning after all (Reid, 1).

Reid chooses to eliminate symbolism entirely from Chekhov’s play, as it would make it into a much more conventional play. Directors would thus be able to take a Stanislavskian approach to it and give the play “the cumulative weight of the whole action (Reid, 3)”. In addition, Reid claims that if the directors focused more on the emotional and verbal states of the characters, then the real would bring out the “living character” much more than the symbolism, for example, of the seagull (Reid, 3). “The argument of the play insists that where the ideal was, there the real shall be (Reid, 3)”.

Reid continues to express his belief that directors, when looking at The Seagull, should view the play as a whole, and work off the idea that the play rejects the seagull as a symbol. He believes that this symbolic possibility Chekhov created was actually a mistake on the playwright’s part and has no real, cohesive meaning to the whole action of the play (Reid, 3). Additionally, the directors should be looking for the play’s comic potential rather than the symbolic resonance, as it would define the play’s perspective better (Reid, 4). In other words, Reid not only dismisses the whole meaning of the symbols in The Seagull, but also feels like directors are not expressing what is most true to the play; the nature of the characters.

After reading this article, I found myself very confused as to what John Reid thinks about Chekhov and his art. Moreover, he basically claims that Chekhov is neither a symbolist nor a naturalist but should still be treated as a realist in terms of how actors portray his characters. Reid makes a comment about how directors should therefore disregard all the symbolic interactions the playwright has, as they are most likely mistakes, and should thus only focus on the emotional state of the characters. This would in turn bring the meaning of the play forward more clearly. However, I will attempt to challenge this notion by saying that the meaning of the play may not be limited to the emotional state and development of Chekhov’s characters. By making the directors concerned only with the truthfulness of the emotional state and development of the characters, Reid is meanwhile suggesting a total dismissal of any and every other aspect of The Seagull. If the directors are limited in exploring the meanings and interpretations of the play, they may well be directing a play that is not truthful to the playwright’s intent after all; in this case it being the relationship between reality and nature in art. It is important to note that Chekhov lived through a time of social reform in Russia, which brought the realistic, natural view on art and the world, “Chekhov, in his personal life and his art stayed a believer of real and high art (Bonyadi, 4)”. Even though The Seagull has to do with real life and real emotional relationships with people, as Reid claims, it is still considered symbolic and metaphorical as a lot of the meanings Chekhov was striving for in this play can only be seen through his symbolic methods (Bonyadi, 1). For example, when looking at the seagull as a symbol we are encouraged to go beyond the words of the play and think about life though the seagull, as Nina often talked about in the play. Furthermore, we can understand Treplev’s life by interpreting the seagull as being his never-ending search for meaning of life. As Boyandi puts it “The presented facts and reflections are deep, and inner, as in they are now presented to the audience not by direct clash of characters, but by the resolution of the inner unresolved issues (Bonyandi, 1)”. Thus, it is clear that Chekhov was not only purposefully aiming for deeper concepts of life and nature, and how the two relate to each other, but was also concerned with the audience’s perspective and was therefore aspiring to a more subtle way of expressing these concerns. Consequently, the way Chekhov chooses to do that is through the use of nature (the lake, the seagull) as it was a concept the audience of the time could relate to and understand.

Although I do find Reid’s argument interesting, I believe it is quite ignorant in terms of why there was this use of symbolism and particularly the use of nature symbolism. I believe that The Seagull has a lot more to offer “under-the-lines” than through the words of the characters, thus focusing solely on the development of the characters would seem uneducated and uninformed.   

Works Cited
Boyadi, Ali R. “Seagull: A Chekhov’s Unique Idea into Tragicomedy.” Studies in Literature and Language 4.1 (2012): 154-57. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.
Reid, John. “Matter and Spirit in The Seagull.” Modern Drama 41.4 (1998): 607-22. 1. Web. 2 Apr. 2014. <>.


By Stacie Argyrou