Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 607

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In “A Trifling Occurrence,” Chekhov demonstrates his profound understanding of a child’s psychology. The story shows how impressionable children are. It also demonstrates that what may seem trivial to an adult can be of great significance to a child and may leave a lasting imprint. To depict this “common triviality” at work, Chekhov has chosen a collision of children’s emotions with a world of insincere and false relations—a world peopled by petty and dishonorable adults.

At first glance, the story may seem to be about Belyaev’s failure to keep his word with Alyosha, thereby insulting the child and putting him through an emotional trauma. Such a reading would lead one to conclude that Belyaev is the villain and Alyosha the injured innocent. On rereading the story, however, one discovers that the situation is far more complex. In fact, no one in this story is innocent, not even Alyosha. To a lesser or greater extent, everyone is guilty of contributing to the tragedy. If Belyaev appears to be all bad (which he is not), Alyosha and the others are certainly not all good. Early in the story, Belyaev looks at Alyosha and reflects: “A boy is stuck in front of your eyes, but what is he doing here, what is his role?—you don’t want to give a single thought to the question.” The key word here is “role.” A closer examination of the story reveals that all characters portrayed are guilty of role-playing rather than leading authentic lives. All of them are caught in a vast web of deceit and betrayal, a web that they themselves have erected.

The “unnatural positions” that Alyosha acrobatically assumes in the opening paragraphs of the story are symbolic of the deceptive lives they all lead. Belyaev deceives Olga about the true nature of his feelings for her and continues playing the role of her lover. Alyosha and Sonya deceive their mother when they meet secretly with their father. Their father deceives their mother by setting up these clandestine meetings; he also deceives his children by telling them “funny stories” and treating them to sweets while pumping them for information about their mother and Belyaev and by faulting Belyaev for all of their unhappiness, without a hint that he himself may have colluded in it. Nor is Olga guiltless in the situation. If she had been completely unselfish, perhaps the liaison with Belyaev would never have been established. She is less than fair by forbidding the children to see their father. The grandeur of her material comforts suggests that she is milking both her husband and Belyaev to support her lifestyle. Even the nurse escorts the children to their meetings with the father, thereby taking part in the deception of her employer.

All the characters, therefore, are connected in a vicious circle of deception. That circle is finally broken when Belyaev, as a result of his egocentrism, betrays Alyosha. In doing so, Belyaev helps to expose all the other deceptions. Thus, the concluding lines of the story, “This was the first time in his life that Alyosha had been set, roughly, face to face with a lie,” assume a deeper meaning. Before now, Alyosha himself has been guilty of lying and deceiving; now, he experiences the unpleasantness of being lied to. Given the number of similarities between the adult-child Belyaev and Alyosha pretending to be an adult in the opening two paragraphs of the story, the reader may seriously doubt whether Alyosha will behave any differently once he reaches adulthood. Chekhov’s message appears to be that there is no substitute for truly authentic and honorable relationships.