Anton Chekhov’s ‘The Bet’ examines the value of life.
First, it touches on the question of the morality of capital punishment. Then, the story goes deeper to examine the very meaning of man’s existence.
We’ve all made obnoxious bets, promising another person a ridiculous sum of money that something is or is not true.
No one actually expects a payoff in these circumstances. They are absurd propositions that emphasize a point regarding our certitude about a particular topic. The Bet, by Anton Chekov, begins under such circumstances. A banker puts up two million rubles to prove his point.
The story begins at the banker’s home. He is throwing a party, and there are many intelligent people in attendance. A discussion begins regarding the morality of capital punishment. Most of the men believe the death penalty ‘ought to be replaced. . . by imprisonment for life.
‘ The banker disagrees. He thinks ‘the death penalty is more moral and more humane than imprisonment for life.’ At this juncture of the conversation, a young lawyer speaks up.The lawyer opines that ‘both (forms) are equally immoral,’ but he would choose life imprisonment, since ‘to live.
. . is better than not at all.’ The banker interjects, and in the heat of the moment bets him two million rubles that he cannot endure five years of solitary confinement. The lawyer agrees, but makes it fifteen years rather than five. If the lawyer remains in confinement for fifteen years, he wins two million rubles. The banker and the lawyer seal the deal over dinner.
There are a few conditions regarding the lawyer’s confinement. He cannot have any visitors or speak to anyone. He will receive no letters or newspapers, but he ‘might have. . .
books, music, wine.’ His place of confinement is an annex of the banker’s home, and any messages he writes must be passed through the only window through which the lawyer can see the outside world. Thus, his confinement begins.
Chekhov condenses the lawyer’s activities over the first ten years. The lawyer gradually adjusts to his confinement. He plays piano and reads ‘novels with a complicated love plot.’ During the second year he reads classic novels. Not until the fifth year does he finally accept wine. During the sixth year, he really begins to develop.
He reads and learns as much as he can. From this point until his tenth year, ‘some six hundred volumes were procured at his request.’He voraciously accumulates knowledge and understanding during his imprisonment. The lawyer learns all that he can about the world, languages, and philosophies, and writes in a letter to the banker about the ‘unearthly happiness my soul feels now from being able to understand them.
‘In his tenth year of isolation, the lawyer begins to read the Gospels. He spends quite a bit of time reading them, for the banker remarks how he ‘waste(s) nearly a year over one thin book easy of comprehension.’ After this, he reads indiscriminately as if he is ‘trying to save his life by greedily clutching first at one spar and then at another.’What does the lawyer gain from his reading? Chekov explores the theme of the value of knowledge by introducing a twist.
Lawyer’s Farewell Letter
Fast-forward to the night before the fifteen years are up. The banker is in a tight spot.
He can no longer afford the two million rubles. Over the course of the last fifteen years, he has squandered his fortune on risky ventures. Therefore, he decides to visit the lawyer under the cover of night and kill him.
However, when he enters the lawyer’s room, he finds him asleep with a few written pages scattered about the table. These pages comprise a final letter to the banker.In this letter, the lawyer discusses the conclusions he has reached about his years of ‘intently studying earthly life.
‘ The words ‘earthly life’ are a reference to finite, or mortal, life. Shockingly, we find out the lawyer believes that all he has learned over the last fifteen years is worthless! While he mentions that these ‘books have given me wisdom,’ he explains that he has come to the decision that he despises books. ‘It is all worthless, fleeting, illusory, and deceptive.’ In other words, his wisdom means nothing, because death will come along and ‘wipe you off the face of the earth.’ What we have on Earth is temporary. It is life after death that holds the real meaning of our existence.To prove his point, the lawyer even renounces the two million rubles.
Although they are something of which he ‘once dreamed as of paradise’, this sum no longer means anything to him. The lawyer now looks for a heavenly reward rather than earthly, and ‘marvels at you who exchange heaven for earth.’ Now that he has found his reason for living, he plans to escape through the window before his fifteen years are up in order to break the contract.
Value of Knowledge
Through the lawyer and his transition, Chekhov questions the worth of knowledge. Knowledge is a powerful tool. It helps one to understand the way the world works.
However, it does not explain man’s purpose. No book can explain that. The lawyer realizes that man’s purpose cannot be found in earthly possessions.
As for the banker, he is mostly just pleased that he doesn’t have to pay the two million rubles and doesn’t learn anything from the lawyer’s enlightenment. He remains a prisoner of his earthly possessions, and thus isolated from God.
The Bet, by Anton Chekov, is slightly deceptive in its title.
The story begins with a bet over capital punishment and the morality behind it, but develops into one that explores themes related to the value of knowledge, the meaning of life, and man’s purpose.Throughout his isolation, the lawyer consumes as much information as he can. However, by the end of his imprisonment he has experienced a change of heart and tries to explain it in his farewell letter. He explains how he has come to believe that nothing we accumulate on Earth means anything as death wipes it all away.
Man needs to change his focus from earthly to heavenly rewards. Unfortunately, the lawyer’s insights are lost on the banker, who is overjoyed at not having to pay the two million rubles he bet. He gains nothing from the other man’s wisdom.