The Bet Summary

Anton Chekhov

The Bet

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The Bet Summary

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Anton Chekov’s “The Bet” is a powerful short story published in 1889 about a banker and a lawyer who make a bet with each other about the death penalty versus life in prison. In the story, each wrestles with the idea of which is better or worse, and the culmination is a twist ending.

The story opens with the banker remembering a bet he made nearly fifteen years earlier with a lawyer. The two fell into a discussion during a party he was hosting and began to debate whether life in prison or death would be more humane. For the banker, capital punishment would be the preferable choice. The lawyer swore he would choose life in prison. They agreed on a bet of two million rubles to see if the lawyer could spend fifteen years in solitary confinement; the lawyer put himself into isolation.

From here, we begin to see the transformation of the lawyer. At first, he suffers. He is depressed and severely lonely. This state, however, gives way to a period of great learning and self-reflection. We see him studying vigorously, first languages, then science, and then a host of other philosophical subjects. Overall, he reads more than 600 volumes in the span of four years. After that, he spends his time studying the Gospels and other histories of religion. In the last two years of his isolation, he returns to the sciences and philosophy.

While this is happening, the banker’s fortune declines. He realizes towards the end of the lawyer’s confinement that he will be unable to pay the bet if the lawyer triumphs and this debt will completely ruin him. He makes a desperate plan to kill the lawyer so he will not have to pay the debt.

However, on his way to carry out his plan, he finds a note written by the lawyer. In the note, the lawyer explains that his time in isolation has changed him, and he believes that it is best to renounce his wealth and live simply. Material goods are fleeting, and he now despises them in favor of knowledge. Because of his newfound belief, he wishes to renounce the bet.

The banker is moved and leaves the lodge weeping. He is relieved that he does not have to carry out his plan. Although the lawyer technically won the bet by proving he could survive fifteen years of solitary confinement, he also loses the bet by renouncing it.

This story touches on the idea that confinement can fundamentally change who a person is. In death, there is no chance for this great change, but confinement might give a person a chance to have a transformation of character. The lawyer begins his journey with the intention of winning a great deal of money, but in the end, his experience leads him to a completely different way of viewing life.

One interesting theme is the idea of experience. The lawyer claims that through his confinement, he was able to read about all manner of human experiences, and he concludes that this is the same as having the experience itself. He’s decided to renounce most of these experiences without ever having them directly.

It is a strange transformation and one we don’t expect. Chekov leaves it up to the reader to decide if the lawyer has wasted some of the best years of his life, or if he has transformed for the better through his epiphanies about the nature of experience. The clear thing is that this transformation saved his life when the banker changed his mind.

Another fundamental theme of the story is that of life and death. In the original argument, the guests are unsure which would be more humane or more implicitly a worse punishment. Is life worth the price of death if that life is lived in confinement? What is it that makes life good enough to live and is death preferable to life without freedom? Chekov does not definitively answer those questions, and again, it is up to the reader to decide if the lawyer’s transformation is preferable to death. The lawyer seems to think so, but ultimately Chekov’s intention is unclear.

An implicit theme of the story is that of humanity. In the beginning, both the banker and the lawyer make a critical bet based on money. At the end of fifteen years, the thought of that money has driven the banker to the point of murder. He only changes course when he realizes that he will not owe the money after all.

On the surface, the lawyer seems to experience a transformation of character, but we are unsure if his transformation is a positive one. He has disavowed all human experiences in his isolation, and while material goods no longer hold sway over him, it is likely that the extreme isolation has still robbed him of his humanity. Chekov makes no move to answer that, and it is up to the reader to decide if the sacrifice has been worth it.

Overall, the story is an interesting insight into what desires drive humanity, and what sorts of things we are willing to do for material gain. It also calls into question our relationships with those around us, insinuating that extreme isolation, while possibly a better alternative than death, will cause us to lose our humanity.