The main question asked in Anton Chekhov’s “The Sea-Gull” is not, “What’s the meaning of life?” or even “What’s life’s purpose”. It’s, “What gives life meaning?”. It is in this regard that all of the characters seem to be searching for something, something in-attainable- to the point that one questions whether or not they’ve purposely set themselves up to be discontent.
The first instance we see this discontent is when Masha confesses to Doctor Eugene Dorn, that she is in love with Constantine, to the point where she feels if she is not helped she will,
“do something foolish and mock my life, and ruin it. I am at the end of my strength…I am in agony. No one, no one can imagine how I suffer” (Act I, Scene I)
Discontent with one’s life as a result of unrequited love is reoccurring theme within the play. Masha, for example, is adored by Medvedenko, who walks a total of twelve miles daily just to, as he confesses to her, “be met only by your indifference”( Act I, Scene I).
In this instance, the play also discusses other reasons for discontent such as how one’s fortune or lack thereof may contribute to one’s discontent; and Medviedenko is obstinate that , “I am poor, my family is large, you can have no inducement to marry a man who cannot even find sufficient food for his own mouth.” This points to the way people often value their lives based on their income; and therefore define themselves based on their lack, becoming discontent because their self-worth is equated to and relies on what money can and cannot provide for them.
In this respect, the play very directly poses the time-old question, who is more happy the rich man who can buy almost all of his desires? Or the poor one who has to seek after them by any other means afforded to him. It hearkens to the idea that people are discontent, one way or the other for reasons, in and outside of wealth.
What is interesting about the play is its ability to steal into the lives of each character bringing to light the discontent of all characters regardless of age, revenue, status, or occupation. For instance, when we find out that even Masha’s parents are in a loveless marriage and that Masha’s mother shares her discontent or unrequited love; although mommy takes Medviedenko’s role in as the unrequited lover of Doctor Dorne.
Conversely, there are other cases of discontent within the drama that have less to do with love and more with gaining the approval of others and dreaming dreams bigger than ourselves. This is the case with Constantine, who, seeking his mother’s approval, writes the play within this play, in order to reform drama and make his mother proud. Sadly, when his uncle tries to convince him that his mother already loves and is extremely proud of him, this is not enough for him, he is still discontent. This only sets him up to be further disappointed and hurt when his mother’s mockery of his work causes him to interrupt Nina’s monologue, stop the play, and storm off.
All of these relationships of unrequited love, and therefore misery for those that are doing the loving, pose the question, is love and being loved what gives life meaning? And is attaining the affections of the object of your desire is that which makes life worthwhile? Should we value ourselves based on what’s in our wallet, how accepted we are by others? Should we measure ourselves, and our work as artists based off of the reviews of others?