Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Anton Chekhov's – THE SEAGULL

It's summertime and the family has retreated to its summer estate in the country. There’s a lake, plenty of woods, fields to roam and books to read and even a temporary stage set up for some impromptu theater. All the ingredients for a wonderful, happy summer vacation, right? Of course not. This is Russia, where happiness just isn’t in the natural order of things. We’re not talking The Waltons here.

The play begins with a simple question from Medvedenko: “Why do you always wear black?” Masha’s answer sets the tone for the rest of the play: “I’m in mourning for my life. I am unhappy.” Masha is young, educated and attractive and has her whole life ahead of her. What’s to be unhappy about? Medvedenko’s response: “Why? I don’t understand…” And neither do I. What is it with these people? They’re living a life that thousands, millions, of people can only dream about. And they’re unhappy? And it’s not just the young folks either. The elderly Sorin, who owns the estate, says: “…now I’m retired, at the end of the day there’s nowhere to put myself. Whether you want to or not, you have to live…” So, you may wonder, why not make the best of it while you can? Silly you, that’s what most people would think, but these characters aren’t “most people”. They’re more talented, more sophisticated, and more sensitive than the unwashed bourgeois masses. And more unhappy, we’re tempted to add.

So what are we to make of all this? Are talent, sophistication and sensitivity bad things to have? I don’t think so. There’s just something gone wrong here. These people are talented, but have developed their talents for the wrong reasons and in the wrong directions. They’re sophisticated, but with little appreciation for the finer things in life. And their sensitivity doesn’t make them feel more connected with the world, but only destroys a real chance for happiness in life by turning them narcissistic. Why do they behave this way? Why are they so self destructive?

Now I think we’re getting closer to Chekhov’s point. It’s not the idyllic rural setting that’s the problem – it’ s the people. Specifically, it’s the relationships between people. Where do we begin to unravel this Freudian nest of relationships? Well, Masha ends up marrying Medvedenko, but she doesn’t love him, and she doesn’t love their children. Instead, she loves Kostya. Kostya doesn’t love her back though. He’s in love with Nina. But Nina has fallen for Trigorin. And Kostya hates Trigorin. Not only is Trigorin a famous writer, which Kostya aspires to be, he’s also Arkadina’s lover. It just so happens that Arkadina is Kostya’s mother, and also a famous actress, which Nina aspires to be. Got all that? No wonder this summer family retreat didn’t go off so well.

Everyone in the play is afraid they’ll somehow miss the boat of happiness. Nina says to Trigorin: “People’s lots are very different. Some barely drag out their tedious, unnoticed existence…others, like you for instance, are given a life that’s interesting, bright, full of meaning…you’re happy…Your life is splendid!” Au contraire, replies Trigorin: “What is special about it…I am held day and night by one obsessive thought: I must write, I must write…I write with no breaks…what, I ask you, is there here that is splendid and bright?” So much for fame and fortune as a path to happiness.

By the end of the play I was glad to leave both Sorin’s estate and his family behind. Things are screwed up sometimes, but I wouldn’t trade places with any of these guys. And Chekhov has a message for those of us who think we live a “tedious, unnoticed existence” and want more fame and fortune: Be careful what you wish for.

-- RDP


Post a Comment

<< Home