In "The Bet," what was the banker's intention regarding the fate of the his prisoner?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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During the fifteen years that the prisoner has been improving his mind through reading and meditation, the banker has been deteriorating mentally, physically and morally. His attachment to money has not made him happy. Instead, it has made him weak and frightened. He has lost the bold self-confidence he displayed fifteen years earlier when he made the bet to show off his wealth to the assembled guests.

Fifteen years before, his millions had been beyond his reckoning; now he was afraid to ask himself which were greater, his debts or his assets.

The banker is old now. He knows that paying the lawyer two million rubles would ruin him. He would have to sell his estate and live out his remaining years in some furnished room or cottage. Since his remaining friends would vanish along with his money, he would himself become like a prisoner living in solitary confinement--but not nearly as comfortably as his own prisoner had been living for all these years.

The banker is thinking of murdering the lawyer. He has not made a definite decision to do it, but he knows this would be the only way for him to keep what was left of his fortune. When he goes inside the lodge where the lawyer has been imprisoned:

"Poor creature!" thought the banker, "he is asleep and most likely dreaming of the millions. And I have only to take this half-dead man, throw him on the bed, stifle him a little with the pillow, and the most conscientious expert would find no sign of a violent death."

The banker is ashamed of himself for thinking such thoughts. It would be sufficiently dishonorable merely to renege on the bet, but to commit a murder in order to avoid paying a legitimate debt would go beyond dishonor. Furthermore, he even toys with the idea of pinning the prisoner's death on his servant.

"If I had the pluck to carry out my intention," thought the old man, "suspicion would fall first upon the watchman."

He seems to be trying to talk himself into committing a crime which, ironically, would receive the extreme legal puhishment if he were found guilty. In those days he would probably have been sent to a  prison camp in Siberia, where he would have quickly died of exposure, malnourishment, overwork, and grief. To his unspeakable relief, he finds that his prisoner is going to forfeit the bet. He is saved from having to pay the money and saved from having to commit a murder. But he will have to live with his shame.

At no other time, even when he had lost heavily on the Stock Exchange, had he felt so great a contempt for himself. When he got home he lay on his bed, but his tears and emotion kept him for hours from sleeping.

When the two men made the bet fifteen years earlier, the lawyer had contended that any form of life imprisonment was preferable to capital punishment because a prisoner was given a chance to repent. The lawyer seems to have won his bet even though he did not collect the two million rubles. He read over six hundred of the world's greatest books in a number of different languages. He wrote and meditated in his solitude. He became a wise and learned man. The moral of "The Bet" may be said to be that capital punishment is indeed inhumane and that any criminal ought to be given a chance to change his character.

The banker had become morally bankrupt. He himself would probably never know whether or not he would have killed the prisoner.


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