‘The Bet’ by Anton Chekhov: Short Story Analysis
‘The Bet’ by Anton Chekhov begins at a party where the death penalty is being discussed. The party has been given by a rich banker with an excited temperament. At this party are many intellectuals, journalists, lawyers, and their like. Intellectual topics are being discussed and there is no sign of frivolity in the atmosphere. This is ironic because at the end of the story, one of the characters through their letter brings out the whole frivolity of life itself. This character is a young lawyer. In this story, he voluntarily goes into solitary confinement to prove a baseless point against the rich banker; the point being that life imprisonment was any day better than the death penalty for criminals. The banker stakes two million stating in his excited state that the lawyer was wrong to think one could survive in solitary confinement for so long a time. The banker by the way prefers the death penalty to life imprisonment.
I want to draw your attention to the fact that this story is not merely about greed but is about the hypocrisy of life itself. The young lawyer spends fifteen years in solitary confinement just to prove a point. He reads a great number of books while he lives out those fifteen years in the confines of one of the rooms in the banker’s lodge. Those books teach him all there is to know about life and helps him toward the process of self-realization or self-actualization. Books were the lawyer’s only companions to aid him in a deeper understanding of humanity, the reality about life, the frivolousness of life, the hopelessness of a permanent improvement in mankind, and such other lofty topics of the mind, heart, and soul. The lawyer is in love with his books, those thousands of books he read in the time frame of fifteen years. It is through these books that he achieves enlightenment, harkening back to Lord Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi tree or Lord Jesus’ fasting in the desert for forty days.
You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive. —James Baldwin
Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you. —Carlos Ruiz Zafón in The Shadow of the Wind
It is through these books that he analyzes his existence and the existence of others. By using the ruse of the death penalty as a subplot, Anton Chekhov once again drives the reader’s thoughts brilliantly away from the main topic of the story which is the banality of life seen through the eyes of an enlightened being. Some people can gain enlightenment by dying on the Cross, some while sitting calmly in a dark cave like the Prophet Muhammad, and others by reading books.
To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark. —Victor Hugo
Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are. —Mason Cooley
The lawyer sits there in that lodge room for a whole of fifteen years analyzing life through books. If you notice carefully, the genres of the books he reads over the years is very indicative of the sharpening of his intellect, and his growth in wisdom. He first reads common love stories and mystery books with a simple plot, then goes on to read the classics. He then gets interested in the thoughts of human beings and picks up languages, philosophy, and history. He is trying to find the unity in man and he finds that in his studies of philosophy, history, and especially in his studies of various languages. He then astonishingly reads for one whole year the Gospels of Christ. The narrator of this story tries to discredit the notion as impossible that a human being could spend so many months just reading the thin volume of the Lord Jesus’ Gospels. But we know as readers that now the lawyer is seeing the depth in the words of the Christ and is now reading not only to pass the time but with a mission to attain enlightenment and find the truth about existence. He goes on to read books on Theology and history of religion. The last year of the lawyer’s stay in the lodge has been described by the narrator as a year where he read almost anything and everything. This always reminds me of Lord Buddha’s last days under the Bodhi tree before he achieved enlightenment. He too was tempted through numerous visions and distracting thoughts, but he stood firm in his concentration and went on to become the ‘Enlightened One’ we know Him as today. The lawyer too trying to keep himself focused delves into any book at hand and at random. But he too like Lord Buddha is successful and finds out about the truth of existence.
It is evident from the last writing testament by the lawyer to the banker that he had achieved enlightenment. The banker on the other hand was on his own trip. He had gone ‘bankrupt’ and now couldn’t afford to allow the lawyer to run away with his precious two million. He was ready to kill the lawyer as long as he could save his two million from being deservedly taken away from him. He is the total opposite where enlightenment is concerned. He is greedy, materialistic, averse to wisdom, and desperate. However, after reading the lawyer’s heartfelt letter, he changes his ways and refuses to kill the lawyer.
The letter of the lawyer is very astounding. Here I would like to mention that there are two ways of handling self-knowledge and self-realization. Either you accept it and teach others the path, or you become a cynic and withdraw from life completely. The latter is what has happened to the lawyer; he is cynical about the whole hypocrisy of humankind and its deceitful nature. He renounces his deserving two million and with that rejection exits a few hours early from the lodge after fifteen long years. The banker is left a broken man after reading the letter because he sees how enlightened the lawyer was. He also realizes what a terrible person he had grown into. He had wanted to snuff out the life of the lawyer who was a mere skeleton because of his long years in solitary confinement.
Sometimes it feels as if everything in life is just something we haul to the grave. —Douglas Coupland
The banker is rightly ashamed of himself and feels very unworthy of the priceless gift of generosity the lawyer is unknowingly gifting the banker. On the topic of the death penalty, it is answered in the short story itself that the voluntary solitary confinement could neither prove it right or wrong. As mentioned earlier, the main crux of the story was the attainment of knowledge and wisdom and not about the death penalty. There are excellent takeaway points from this short story ‘The Bet’.
- The solitary confinement was voluntary which was more torturous for the lawyer as he was free to leave the lodge anytime he wished. There was even a window from which he could see the outside world to tempt him further toward freedom.
- The lawyer was twenty-five years old when he went into voluntary solitary confinement. When he emerged from the room, he was forty years old. He, because of a silly wager, had sacrificed the very prime of his youth. There is a mention in the story that the lawyer looked so old and haggard that you couldn’t believe he was only forty years old.
- The banker was going to lay the blame for the murder of the lawyer on the watchman who kept vigil in the corridor or passageway to the room where the lawyer was confined.
- The wager was both made and concluded during the time of autumn and at eventide.
- When the banker went to murder the lawyer, it was raining heavily indicative of the molten lava of emotional upheaval going on in the banker’s and incidentally even in the lawyer’s mind.
At the party when the wager is made, there is a reference to one particular guest who had the perfect answer to the question of the death penalty. That guest rightly believed that both the death penalty as well as life imprisonment were immoral because both took away life. Both, directly and indirectly, took away the life of a person, something which the court cannot give back but apparently, only the Divine can.
It need not necessarily be that solitary confinement can be painful. Nowadays we increasingly hear of people in solitary confinement who improve themselves through education, reading, craftwork, painting, and so on. But I guess here we are looking at the imprisonment system of Chekhov’s time so it would have been something similar to what the banker mentions in the text.
The banker at the party had wagered for the lawyer staying five years in solitary confinement. It is the egoistic lawyer who proposes instead that he would stay in confinement for fifteen years, sort of digging his own grave as it were.
I read this story by Anton Chekhov in the year 2014 when I was twenty-five years old. It had a great impact on me and became one of the defining moments of my life. I have written a piece about how this short story affected me personally. It was more than a pleasure to analyze ‘The Bet’ here on my blog insaneowl.com. I hope this analysis has helped you. Do grab your copy of ‘The Bet’ as soon as possible if you have not yet read this wonderful story about the silly but in the end profound wager between a materialistic banker and a willful young lawyer.
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