Study Guide

The Bet

by Anton Chekhov

The Bet Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Bet” is the story of a bet that stakes a banker’s two million rubles against fifteen years of a young lawyer’s life. As the story opens, the banker is recalling the occasion of the bet fifteen years before. Guests at a party that he was hosting that day fell into a discussion of capital punishment; the banker argued that capital punishment is more humane than life imprisonment, while the young lawyer disagreed, insisting that he would choose life in prison rather than death. As the argument became more heated, the banker angrily wagered two million rubles that the lawyer could not endure imprisonment, a challenge that the lawyer accepted, setting the term of his voluntary captivity at fifteen years, at the end of which he would receive the two million rubles.

The lawyer was imprisoned in the banker’s garden house in complete solitude, permitted no visitors, no letters, no newspapers. He could write letters, however, and he was permitted books, music, wine, and tobacco. The banker observed the progress of the young lawyer’s adaptation to his imprisonment. During the first year, he read fight books and played the piano. In the second year, he ceased being interested in music but turned to great literature. In the fifth year, he loafed, drank wine, and played the piano. Then for four years he studied languages, history, and philosophy before moving to the New Testament and to theology. Finally, his reading became eclectic.

At the beginning of the story, the day on which the banker is recalling the events of these fifteen years, he is within a day of the final accounting, when, no longer rich but oppressed by debt, he will be ruined by paying the two million rubles. Desperate, the banker resolves to unlock the garden house door and to kill his captive, throwing the blame on the watchman. When he enters the room, he sees an emaciated man, old before his time, asleep at his table. Before him is a paper, on which he has stated that he despises everything in human life, even the books from which he has learned about it, and that, therefore, he intends to leave his room five minutes before the fifteen-year period elapses, thus forfeiting the bet.

After reading the paper, the banker despises himself. The next morning, he learns that the lawyer has indeed left the garden house. So that no one will suspect him of a crime, the banker puts the paper in his safe.