Origins of “The Seagull”

Left to right: Lika Mizinova, Maria Chekhova and Anton Chekhov

Left to right: Lika Mizinova, Maria Chekhova and Anton Chekhov

While Chekhov and Levitan were renewing their friendship in January 1895, Lika Mizinova sat alone and despondent in Paris caring for her two-month-old infant. Frustrated by Chekhov’s rejection of her love, she had started an affair with the writer Potapenko and followed him to Paris, ostensibly to take voice lessons. After the birth of their child, the married Potapenko abandoned Lika, never to see her again.

In January Lika wrote Maria Chekhova telling her that she was her only friend. Regardless, Lika found herself unable to confide in Maria about the birth of her child. Instead, she talked about her homesickness and the latest gossip from Moscow, including the news of Levitan’s reunion with Chekhov (“How surprising!”) and rumors of Levitan and Kuvshinnikova trying to make up (“If this reconciliation takes place, you can only throw your hands up and no longer be surprised by anything in the world!”).

But sometime in late January in Moscow, Maria saw Potapenko, who told her about the child. Now Lika bared her soul to Maria: “It’s been almost a year that I’ve forgotten what it means to have peace, happiness and other such pleasant things. From almost my first day in Paris there began torment, lies, concealing, etc.” (Potapenko’s wife also lived in Paris.) Maria told Chekhov about the “distressing” letter she had received from Lika.

That spring Chekhov began working on a play that would evolve into The Seagull. Percolating in his imagination was Lika’s hapless affair with Potapenko. But it was not until after he was summoned to an estate on the shore of Ostrovno Lake to care for Levitan after another tragicomic suicide attempt (Anna Turchaninova and her eldest daughter had both fallen in love with him) that the theme, structure and setting for the play solidified. There, Chekhov witnessed Levitan melodramatically throwing a seagull that he had just shot at Anna Turchaninova’s feet. In The Seagull Potapenko is transformed into the writer Trigorin, who jots down an idea for a story that comes to pass in the course of the play: A young girl “lives on the shore of a lake since childhood; she loves the lake like a seagull, and she is happy and free like the seagull. But by chance a man appears, sees her and having nothing better to do, destroys her, just like this seagull.” Lika recognized herself as that “young girl.” After the play’s premiere in October 1896, she wrote to Chekhov: “… everyone here is saying that The Seagull is taken from my life and also that you did a good job on a certain someone,” implying that Trigorin was an unflattering portrait of Potapenko.

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6 Responses to Origins of “The Seagull”

  1. Malc Lx says:

    A very interesting article. I read somewhere that Lydia was also made into a character in one of his short stories. Although I remember the characters name ‘Olga’ I would be very interested to know which story it was! Any ideas?

  2. sergegregory says:

    Malcom, you may be thinking of Olga Ivanovna in Chekhov’s story “The Grasshopper.” While externally resembling Lika (she was 22 and flaxen-haired), Olga is primarily based on Sophia Kuvshinnikova, Levitan’s mistress. It was written in the summer of 1891 when Chekhov spent an atypically lonely summer at his dacha while Levitan and Kuvshinnikova stayed with Lika at the estate of her uncle in what Chekhov snidely called “a touching triple union.” The impetus to write the story was prompted in part by his sense of being abandoned by two of his closest friends and the resentment he felt at Kuvshinnikova for keeping them away.

  3. A very interesting, and surprising comment. I don’t mean to question your facts, but this would be the first example I’ve come across of Chekhov writing out of resentment, or feeling abandoned by friends. He often felt lonely or isolated, and often cajoled or begged people to write him or visit or vacation with him, but I don’t remember him ever reproaching anyone for abandoning him as a friend. I would love to read about this if you can send me to a source. Spaseba!

  4. sergegregory says:

    My sources for concluding that Lika’s and Levitan’s behavior towards Chekhov in the summer of 1891 was the irritant that produced the pearl (“The Grasshopper”) are the letters they wrote during that period. Most have not been translated into English, but you can get a sense of the tension of that summer if you read the “Summer in Bogimovo” chapter in Donald Rayfield’s biography of Chekhov. In “Antosha and Levitasha,” Chapter 5 “1890-1891: Jealousy” will cover the same time frame in more detail.

    Since Chekhov in his letters used his wit to keep his feelings at arm’s length, it’s often difficult to know when he is being ironic and when he is being sincere. But when you read all of the correspondence during that period, you get the inescapable sense that Chekhov was stewing over being abandoned by Lika and Levitan, who both teased him about how much they were enjoying their time together. Chekhov’s response to Lika was more testy than witty: “Tell [Levitan] not to write about you in every letter. Firstly, this isn’t magnanimous on his part, and secondly, I don’t really care how happy he is.”

    When “The Grasshopper” came out, Lika understood that Chekhov also didn’t care that he had used his friends to serve his creative ends. She told him: “I know very well that if you either say or do something offensive, it’s not out of a desire to do this on purpose, but only because it’s absolutely all the same to you how others take what you do.”

    • Dear Serge,

      I’m delighted to receive your reply. I thank you deeply! I may not know as much about him as you do. When I talk with most of my friends, even my writer friends, the reverse is usually true.

      I’ll make a point of getting ahold of the book and studying the chapter. As I’ve studied Chekhov more and more, I’ve become more and more interested in his craftsmanship, which of course includes the transmutation of life, actual experience, into fiction—the problem of taking what is inchoate, though shot through with meaning, and giving it form.

      If you’ll permit me, not knowing the details of these episodes as you do, I’ll just make a couple of observations. I feel, with you, that Chekhov likes to make light of things in his letters, but it’s hard to tell how much of this is to hide his feelings and how much of it is to keep a sense of proportion about life. He brushes off, shrugs off, things that are not only serious but things that are joyful. It’s all as if to say that the everyday is what’s important, or where the struggle is. And his joshing tone is so clear, so easy to pick up on, that I think he had a right to hope that any intelligent reader would “see right through him,” and would know that there was more behind the joking, and if intelligent and caring would pursue it with him. But in the main, I believe that his writing, both the fiction and the letters, was one way of his keeping his balance in life, and maintaining an equanimity within himself about its ups and downs. Thus, he’s capable of writing in one letter that life and luck have rarely been kind to him, and of writing in another that he’s lived a happy and even privileged life. And underneath it all he’s really implying: how does one measure a life, anyway?!

      Well, if Lika and Levitan were teasing him (and I still need to read the sources), then he had every right to feel hurt and let them know it. (Here, he was not so oblique about his feelings!) Teasing often carries an element of aggression; in fact, it almost always does. One resorts to teasing because one is ashamed of something, and one wants to toy with someone. I’ve seen many times in life that people tease others but are completely unaware of the effect on them. For Chekhov to call them on it—if it involved feelings serious to him—is fine with me.

      Whatever the case, he managed to create, as you write, a “pearl.” And it is very hard to be balanced enough, in what has happened to one personally, to render it into convincing art. I don’t feel the story is unfair to the protagonist, or bitter. And I don’t feel that Dymov is being presented with any aim of self-pity (in the author).

      And I think it goes without saying that Chekhov would never have behaved as either Levitan or Potapenko did, in regard to Lika. I think he was more of a gentleman than that.

      I’ll have to review the chronology, as well as do some reading. Maybe you can help. I’m trying to fill in where Chekhov was in the summer of 1891, and what he was doing. It can’t have been long after he came back from Sakhalin, and must have been before he went off to Europe. But I can’t picture it, nor picture who he was with, and where.

      I hope this note is not too long. Thank you so much for adding to my day, and for passing on this richness of detail!

      Marc Vincenti

  5. sergegregory says:

    I even more strongly recommend that you read Rayfield’s “Anton Chekhov: A Life.” It’s the first biography to take advantage of previously censored or unpublished letters in Russian archives. The portrait he presents of Chekhov is less sanitized than that found in previous biographies. It likely won’t affect your appreciation of Chekhov’s stories and plays, but it may change the way you think of Chekhov the person. Rayfield’s book will also help you with sorting out the chronology questions you have.

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