During the first act, a young aspiring writer named Konstantin puts on an avant-garde play which confuses the audience (particularly his mother, Irina Arkadina, a famous actress). He uses the natural setting of the moon rising over the lake to add a dramatic touch to the arid, overly intellectual verbiage of the play itself. A young woman named Nina Zarechnaya (her surname means “beyond the river”) delivers Konstantin’s words. She has spent her whole life by the lake and now yearns to become an actress.
In the second act, Konstantin presents her with the body of a seagull he has just killed, and this bird becomes an emblem of Nina’s future destiny. She is drawn to Arkadina’s lover, the writer Trigorin. He too finds Nina attractive, and he makes a note to write a story about a girl who loves the lake like a seagull, when along comes a man with nothing better to do but to destroy her life, just as the seagull was destroyed. Trigorin subsequently seduces Nina, but abandons her to remain with Arkadina.
The final act takes place in a parlor which Konstantin has converted into a study. Two years have passed, and the main characters have reassembled. Konstantin, however, has never left the farm. Nina arrives unannounced, drenched by a cold autumn rain. After she describes to Konstantin her difficulties, her nostalgia for her simple life by the lake, and her renewed determination to continue her acting career, she leaves him, and the young man kills himself out of despair. It is characteristic of Chekhov that the suicide occurs offstage while the other characters are engaged in mundane pursuits such as playing lotto.