Anton Chekhov’s “The Bet” opens with a banker contemplating a party from fifteen years ago. At the party the guests faced a disagreement on capital punishment, such as life imprisonment and the death penalty. One guest, a young lawyer, states his opinion:
“The death sentence and the life sentence are equally immoral, but if I had to choose between the death penalty and imprisonment for life, I would certainly choose the second. To live anyhow is better than not at all.”
The banker hosting the party claims this opinion is wrong and they make a bet to have the lawyer imprisoned for five years. The lawyer then declares that he can go fifteen years in isolation. The details of the bet are that the lawyer will spend fifteen years in isolation. Any food, drink, instrument, book, or vice (such as tobacco and alcohol) he was to ask for was to be given to him. The man will spend this time of isolation in a lodge on the banker’s estate. If the lawyer lasts the complete fifteen years then the banker will be required to give him two million dollars; if he leaves at any time before his scheduled release then the money stays with the banker. The banker states that this will be worse than life in prison, due to the fact that the lawyer has the ability to leave at any given moment. The lawyer then becomes the prisoner. The prisoner goes his first year without wine or tobacco and reads lighthearted stories. As years progress, the prisoner’s habits change. He begins to stop reading, starts smoking and drinking, begins playing instruments, stops playing instruments, begins studying history and literature, begins to study language (even writing a letter to his jailer in six different languages stating that he is perfectly sane), studies the gospel for an entire year, studies theology and philosophy, and studies sophisticated literature. We are now back where we were at the beginning of the story. We learn that the banker is now in an economic crisis and can’t pay the prisoner if the prisoner is released the next day, on schedule. The banker arrives at the lodge with the intention of killing the prisoner, but discovers the prisoner is asleep and a note on a table. The banker reads the note. It states (in a rather pretentious way) how the prisoner has basically discovered the meaning of life: that it has no meaning. He sees himself above the ideas of currency and instead he has mentally progressed to the point of having the ultimate understanding of society. The letter ends by saying the prisoner intends to leave right before his scheduled release, refusing the money. The prisoner does indeed leave the next morning and the banker hides the note.
There is a lot to unpack with this story, but I’ll try to stick with just the basics. One thing I tracked was the opinions portrayed in the story. In the beginning there are multiple opinions on a specific topic, all having their own merit and can be agreed with or disagreed with, much like any other opinion that exists. By the end the prisoner believes he has been provided with insight to the entire world and understands the embodiment of human existence. The final opinion stated is very sophisticated, there is no reaction that is prompted from other characters, it is not specific to a certain topic and instead is portrayed as the answer to all questions, and can neither be agreed with or disagreed with due to the advanced psychology that cannot be understood by normal people.
What is your opinion on the prisoner’s opinion at the end?
Another aspect of the story I analyzed was the passage of time and details of imprisonment; those two elements go hand in hand. First off, time passing is very well executed in this piece. All of the details are kept in general terms, not involving too much specifics unless it’s an unusual situation. By keeping it vague and general, Chekhov makes leaps in time years in length feel small in the grand scheme of fifteen years. This creates a natural and impactful passage in time, particularly for a short story that tells fifteen years of information in the span of six pages.
Do you feel like, despite the rapid progress of time, the reader is able to connect with the prisoner and/or the banker?
The details are also significant. We are given minimal description of the prisoner before he is forced into isolation, we are merely told he is young and a lawyer. When the prisoner is in isolation we see him undergo definite changes, who he was at the beginning doesn’t matter, all that mattered about his character is that he vastly changed while imprisoned and who he was by the end. We feel a progression as multiple seemingly small aspects are repeatedly changed, showing multiple changes before settling on his final self.
This story is incredible when it comes to developing characters but still keeping them distant from the reader. It allows us to empathize with the banker and wonder about the prisoner. There are so many tactics that are used in this piece that I would like to apply to my own work, but there’s just so much to learn from that I can’t cover it all in this essay without boring whoever reads this with the laundry list of instances of sheer genius within this story. Honestly though, all of those different aspects lead to one question at the end:
Do you understand the prisoner’s final note?