And the Winner is …

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Two authors. Two endings. Two responses. Although similarities exist between O. Henry’s “The Furnished Room” and Chekhov’s “A Trifling Occurrence,” one of the stories rises above the other in strength and effect. By comparing and contrasting the two narratives according to language, character, and ending, I will demonstrate which one deserves higher praise.

Both O. Henry and Chekhov establish realistic settings for their stories, but they do so in different ways. O. Henry employs concrete, sensory language to give the reader a mental picture of the conditions his focal character experiences. He appeals to sight – “a splattered stain, raying like the shadow of a bursting bomb” – to smell – “the strong, sweet odor of mignonette” – to touch – “viscid under the foot like organic matter” – to hearing – “her throat seemed lined with fur” – and to emotion – “a green and trenchant oath.”

The fact that he uses so many descriptive details complements the feelings and perceptions of the protagonist. To illustrate, when the protagonist encounters the smell of his sweetheart’s perfume, O. Henry writes, “He reached out his arms for it, all his senses for the time confused and commingled.” By bombarding readers with an array of sensory stimuli, O. Henry helps his audience climb into the protagonist’s shoes and ‘sense’ along with him. However, the quantity of sensory information fails to compensate for O. Henry’s lack of connectedness in the plot (which I will address later).

Chekhov, on the other hand, uses little sensory description in “A Trifling Occurrence,” opting instead for realistic representations of people through dialogue, attitudes, actions, and emotions. Although Aliosha’s speech does not at first sound childlike, its choppy structure, complete with pauses, fragments, and random changes in subject, conveys a sense of real human speech. The same goes for Bieliayev’s dialogue (minus childish unpredictability of course).

Although Chekhov specifically describes Bieliayev’s attitude toward Aliosha throughout the story, he reinforces it with action: “Bieliayev waved his hand at him and went on walking up and down.” When Bieliayev first encounters Aliosha, the boy is practicing acrobatics on the sofa, lending an air of realistic oddity. Also, without explicit statement, Chekhov makes his characters sound angry, nervous, or peaceful. He shows how they feel through action. For instance, “Aliosha blushed and in the violent confusion of being detected in a lie began to scratch the locket busily with his finger-nail.” The reader does not need a summary statement to know that the young boy feels uncomfortable. Through such realistic language, Chekhov grounds his readers in the story from the start.

In “The Furnished Room,” O. Henry does not give the audience much information about the personality of his nameless protagonist. We gather that the young man is searching for his lost sweetheart and that his lengthy, unfruitful quest has made him frustrated and weary, but we are never told why he chooses to take his life in response to the particular disappointment at the twelfth red mansion on the West Side. As the author states, the man has received numerous negative replies already – why does he despair now, right when he discovers evidence of his sweetheart’s recent presence? We do not know enough about him to determine if his response is consistent with his character or not.

In contrast, Chekhov reveals the personalities of his characters through their actions, their words, and background information. For example, we know that Bieliayev does not think highly of small boys, until he obtains a selfish motive to do so (remembering Olga as she used to be), and that he is pursuing a romantic relationship with a married woman. We also find out through his actions that he is a hypocrite. Since Chekhov ascribes motivations to his characters, discloses their personalities, and makes them react in ways consistent with their characteristics, readers do not feel confused or cheated at the end of the story.

Both stories rely on ironic endings for effect. “The Furnished Room” closes with the revelation that the protagonist’s sweetheart had committed suicide in the same room and in the same fashion as he did, although he knew nothing of her death. Similarly, “A Trifling Occurrence” ends with Bieliayev committing the same sin for which he berates Aliosha’s father. In both cases, the conclusion hinges on a lie: the landlady’s lie, which presumably led to the young lover’s death, and Bieliayev’s lie, which most likely cut Aliosha off from his father.

The difference between the two stories is that O. Henry’s ending does not necessarily follow from the lie, whereas Chekhov’s conclusion rests squarely on it. The landlady’s falsehood in “The Furnished Room” does not guarantee the outcome – the protagonist could have committed suicide regardless of whether or not he knew of his sweetheart’s death; he knew she was gone, and that was enough. However, when Bieliayev breaks his word to Aliosha, it affects the outcome of the story: If Bieliayev had not lied, the little boy would not feel so miserable and betrayed, and he probably would have been able to continue visiting his father without disturbance.

Two endings, two sets of characters, two ways of describing reality. From the explanation I have given above, Chekhov’s work outranks O. Henry’s. “A Trifling Occurrence” maintains a logical cohesiveness that “The Furnished Room” lacks. Also, through the use of dialogue, actions, and background information, Chekhov introduces his characters more powerfully than O. Henry does. Finally, Chekhov grounds his audience in the setting and vivifies his characters through active language instead of mere description. All in all, “A Trifling Occurrence” triumphs as the stronger story.

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2 thoughts on “And the Winner is …

  1. Thanks Abigail. Enjoyed the comparison. Have to say Chekhov always going to win out as he must be the greatest short story writer ever. Such calmness of eye and depth of heart. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox.

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