Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

From its opening to its closing line, “A Trifling Occurrence” is exemplary of Chekhov’s mastery of the short story. Its construction is analogous to the best of Chekhov’s one-act plays. In fact, it could easily be staged: More than two thirds of its lines consist of dialogue. Another fact common to both story and play is that all major “events” leading up to the conflict take place offstage. As in the indirect plays, so, too, in this story, there are important offstage characters, most notably the father.

The story shows symmetry in its construction: from its bipartite opening, consisting of two paragraphs of ten lines each devoted to the introduction and description of the two protagonists, to its conclusion, consisting also of ten lines. Narrative passages frame what remains, which is essentially dialogue. Chekhov masterfully moves the tempo of this dramatic piece from the leisurely pace of the introductory paragraphs, where one finds both Belyaev and Alyosha reclining on sofas, to the midpoint, where Belyaev and Alyosha become more animated as the former learns the first details of the latter’s secret, to Belyaev’s real state of excitement once he learns that the father accuses him of the family’s ruin, to its crescendo as Belyaev pours out his anger for the insult he has suffered. At this point Olga enters, totally confused, while Alyosha is overwhelmed by terror. Even the lines of dialogue become shorter, thus accelerating the tempo and contributing to the charged atmosphere. In the closing narrative passage the tempo subsides as the narrator sums up the “moral” of the story.