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Anton Chekhov

The Bet

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1889

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Summary: “The Bet”

“The Bet” is one of over 500 short stories by Russian literary giant Anton Chekov. Published in 1889, the story addresses related and intertwined themes of life and death, theoretical versus empirical knowledge, and confinement versus freedom.

Considered a master of short fiction and, along with Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, a founder of Modernist theater, Chekov is one of the late-19th-century writers who have reached 21st-century readers and audiences most powerfully and widely. “The Bet” is a complex moral tale that follows a banker and a lawyer who enter a bet to prove their beliefs about which is worse, life in prison or the death penalty. Chekov’s unnamed characters embark on a wager in which they each stand to lose a great deal.

This guide refers to 52 Short-Stories: 1883-1898, a collection of Chekhov’s works translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Knopf, 2020).

The story opens with an old banker recalling a bet he made with a young lawyer almost 15 years earlier. At a party the banker hosted, he and other men discussed whether life in prison or capital punishment is more moral and humane. The guests found capital punishment outdated and immoral, whereas the banker thought it is morally preferable because it is quick. A young lawyer at the party said that both options were immoral but, if presented with the choice, he would choose life in prison because “to live somehow is better than not to live at all” (337). The banker bet the lawyer two million rubles that he wouldn’t last five years in prison. The lawyer increased the length, declaring that he would spend not five but 15 years in confinement.

As the banker recalls the details of the agreement: the lawyer was to live in a cottage in the banker’s garden without going outside or seeing anyone. He could have a musical instrument, books, wine, and cigarettes. And he could write letters but not receive them. If he stayed in the cottage for 15 years, the banker would give him 2 million rubles.

The narrator goes on to describe the years the lawyer spends in confinement. In the first year, he suffers “from solitude and boredom” (338). He plays the piano and rejects wine and tobacco. He reads literature of “light content” (338). In the second year, he stops playing music and reads only classics. In the fifth year, he starts drinking, stops reading books, and talks to himself in anger. Later, he begins to study history, philosophy, and languages. He’s happy to be able to understand authors from all eras and nationalities, knowing that “the same fire burns in them” (339). He writes a letter to his jailer in six different languages, asking him to show his words to experts. If no mistakes are found in the letters, the banker should fire a gun in the garden. His wish is fulfilled when the banker orders shots to be fired.

After the tenth year, the lawyer sits at his desk and only reads the Gospels. In the last two years of his imprisonment, he reads anything: natural sciences, literature, medical textbooks, chemistry, philosophy, and theology.

The banker is only hours away from setting the lawyer free and paying him the 2 million. But the banker has lost most of his wealth and, if he fulfills the bet, he will be bankrupt. To save what’s left of his wealth, he decides to kill the lawyer. At three o’clock in the morning, the banker goes to the garden cottage where his prisoner is asleep. The banker picks up a note from the lawyer and reads it. The lawyer explains that isolation has changed him. He “[scorns] freedom, and life, and health” and everything books have taught him (341). People live in an illusion, mistaking material wealth for meaning. He will renounce the 2 million by leaving five hours before the agreed term.

The banker kisses the lawyer’s head, weeps, and leaves the cottage. The next morning, his watchmen inform him that the lawyer climbed out of the window and disappeared. The banker locks the note in a safe.