chapter  4
32 Pages

Suicide and survival: Ivanov and The Seagull

Both Ivanov and The Seagull feature individuals in provincial Russia of the late 1880s-1890s who refuse to settle for a banal existence (poshlost’) and instead pursue their desires for social change or artistic fulfilment. Nikolai Ivanov pioneers new farming methods and aspires to bring about social reform. In The Seagull, Konstantin Treplyov wants to revolutionize the theatre of his time and Nina Zarechnaya wants to transcend social norms for upper-class women and become an actress. Chekhov rejects the stereotypical depiction of heroes struggling within an oppressive environment typical of much Russian literature and offers a complex study; Ivanov and Treplyov’s own lack of understanding of the realities of their situation and a lack of understanding by those around them of their visions and ambitions lead to self-destruction. Both plays end with a suicide. In 1887, Chekhov’s adviser Grigorevich had suggested, after a wave of suicides by young people in Russia, that Chekhov should prove his commitment to social concerns by addressing this topic. Suicide occurs as a theme in stories such as Volodya, and all the major plays as well as Ivanov and The Seagull. In The Wood-Demon, Uncle Zhorzh commits suicide. In Uncle Vanya, Vanya takes a bottle of morphine with the intent to commit suicide, but is dissuaded. In Three Sisters Vershinin’s wife regularly attempts it. In The Cherry Orchard Ranevskaya has attempted suicide in the past. As the plays progress, the act of suicide or attempted suicide moves offstage or into the play’s prehistory, but that does not reduce its importance in Chekhov’s depiction of characters seeking to find the purpose of their lives. Ivanov verbalizes the existential problem: ‘Who am I, why am I alive, what

do I want?’ (Chekhov 2005: 81). Among Chekhov’s characters, there are those who are imprisoned by pessimistic attitudes and cannot find a reason to go on living, whereas others, even in difficult circumstances, find a way to go on and shape their own destiny.