Major life events and chronic difficulties have been found to be associated with the onset of depression. Little is known, however, about how exposure to such stressors is related to the clinical presentation of this disorder. We addressed this issue by administering an interview-based measure of life stress, the Beck Depression Inventory, and the Global Assessment of Functioning scale to 100 adults diagnosed with major depressive disorder. Participants who experienced a preonset severe life event exhibited greater overall levels of depression severity, endorsed more cognitive and somatic symptoms of depression, and functioned at lower levels than did their counterparts without preonset severe life events. In contrast, exposure to a preonset severe difficulty was unrelated to participants’ severity of depression, cognitive and somatic symptoms, or level of global functioning. These findings highlight the potentially greater importance of acute stress compared with chronic stress for influencing these key clinical features of depression.