Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Blind Pursuit of Happiness

(This is a paper I wrote for my first English class at BYU. It is a critical analysis of "The Seagull," a really wonderful play by Anton Chekhov. I'm planning to write a series of posts about happiness and how we can achieve it. So I thought I'd start with an example of how NOT to find happiness.)

The characters in Chekhov’s play, “The Seagull,” lead complicated lives, and they blind themselves by focusing on one thing: a selfish pursuit of their own happiness. For several characters, this is a pursuit of unrequited love. Briefly stated, Simon loves Masha who loves Constantine who loves Nina who loves Trigorin. Chekhov uses hyperbole to illustrate the paradox that pursuing only our own happiness and ignoring those around us leads to blindness and from there to misery.
Chekhov uses hyperbole in the way he represents human nature. Most human beings act selfishly some of the time; however, Chekhov’s characters are considerably more selfish than the average human being. For example, Constantine is an exaggeration of two human flaws: selfishness and blindness. Because he focuses so completely on his unrequited love for Nina, Constantine spends his whole life trying to find happiness by winning Nina’s love, at the expense of hurting everyone else around him. He tells Nina, “My whole life is bound up with you for ever. I can’t help loving you” (113). He has stopped seeing any other possibility for happiness. Nina is the inspiration for Constantine’s whole life. Without her, he feels “dry, stale, [and] dismal” (113). In Constantine, Chekhov uses hyperbole to present a picture of the way that human beings sometimes build their lives around another person and become blind to other people’s feelings.

  As a result of Constantine’s blindness to other’s feelings, he thoughtlessly hurts Masha, the woman who loves him. On one occasion, Constantine tells Masha, “Leave me alone, don’t follow me around” (80). If we, like Constantine, allow ourselves to focus all our attention on a single relationship, we become selfish, and our perspective of other people narrows. This often causes us to hurt those around us, as Constantine hurts Masha. Instead of finding the strength to be independent and see other possibilities for happiness, he longs for what he thinks will make him happy; however, what he wants is unattainable. Therefore, he is blind to any real possibility for happiness. Constantine‘s selfishness extends so far that he eventually takes his own life. Not only does this escape from his unrequited love give him no second chances, it breaks the hearts of those who love him, including Masha. By including these selfish actions in his play, Chekhov is again using hyperbole; where most human beings would move on in some fashion, Constantine is an abnormal character, with exaggerated flaws.
  To further exaggerate and build upon the themes of blindness and selfishness, Chekhov creates Masha. Her character is nearly identical to Constantine’s; by using Masha, Chekhov continues the hyperbole. Through Masha, Chekhov portrays another character who focuses only on what she thinks will bring happiness, thereby wrecking the lives of those who love her. Throughout the play, Masha focuses so much on her love for Constantine that she completely ignores Simon’s love for her. By only seeing her own needs and wishes, she blinds herself to Simon’s feelings and point of view. She builds her whole life around the one she loves, leaving no room for anyone or anything else. After Constantine shoots himself the first time, Masha believes that if he had died, she “couldn’t have gone on living one minute” (92). While Masha knows that Simon loves her, she neither loves him, understands him, nor sees him as a real person. Instead, she objectifies him, treats him unkindly, and sees him only as a way to escape her unrequited desire for Constantine. By including two characters whose lives are built entirely around their hopeless search for happiness through getting what they want, Chekhov further exaggerates the human tendency to put all our energy into one relationship.
Further evidence of Masha’s selfish approach to life is her indifference to her child. After her marriage, she spends her time helping her mother care for the estate where Constantine lives. When Simon pleads for her to come home to him and their child, she speaks to him abruptly: “Can’t you leave me alone?” (103), nearly the same words Constantine once spoke to her. Because of the different ways that Constantine and Masha escape their love, he through suicide, she through marriage to Simon, Chekhov points out that selfishness manifests itself in many ways; however, all selfish pursuits of happiness lead to unhappiness.
    In Nina, Chekhov continues to portray blindness and selfishness, while adding a small variation. Nina’s blindness, unlike that of Constantine and Masha, does not come from focusing on unrequited love. Unlike the other two, Nina finds the strength to carry on despite her unrequited love for Trigorin. When he abandons her for “former attachments” (106), Nina has a chance to start her life over. However, in rebuilding her life, Nina allows her passion for the theatre to take the place of her passion for Trigorin. Where Constantine and Masha focus on love, Nina throws herself into the theatre and her goal of being a great actress. Consequently, she is still blind and selfish. Although Nina has “found her road and [knows] where [she’s] going” (114), she doesn’t see who she is leaving behind. Consequently, she hurts Constantine just as much as he hurts Masha. In Nina, Chekhov shows us that allowing anything to completely consume all our energy is harmful. This builds on the hyperbolic selfishness already seen in Constantine and Masha. It also shows that none of their feelings are really love for anyone besides themselves. All any of them care about is getting what they want. None of them are grateful for what they already have.
    Contrasted with the character of Simon Medvedenko, Constantine, Masha, and Nina appear even more flawed. Unlike them, Simon seeks for more than just his own happiness. He is genuinely concerned for the welfare of those around him. From his salary as a schoolmaster (twenty-three roubles a month), he supports his mother, his two sisters, and his younger brother (67). In addition, Simon cares for Masha as more than just a means to make himself happy. We see this from the beginning of the play, where he asks, “Why do you wear black all the time?” (67). He seeks to see why Masha is “in mourning for [her] life,” because he loves her unselfishly.  This is further evidenced by the fact that Simon loves Masha enough to marry her, even when he can see that she doesn’t love him. Simon thinks about more than just his own situation; he cares about her and their child. Because of his selflessness, Simon is not blind to Masha’s feelings the way that she is blind to his.
  Through his use of hyperbole, Chekhov strongly persuades his audience that selfishness leads to unhappiness. However, he does not show us the effects of unselfishness. Simon’s story is left unfinished. We never see whether he actually achieves happiness. This is an accurate representation of real life, where we may not know the results of our actions until much later. Therefore, it is up to us to make the choices that can bring lasting happiness, by caring for other’s needs, rather than selfishly engaging in a misguided pursuit of happiness. That path leads to misery.