On the surface, gender seems to play a very small role in Anton Chekhov's story “The Bet,” yet it hovers just beneath the surface, especially in the way the bet is made and in the way the prisoner comes to see human life.
First, the bet is made at gathering of men. They are debating whether the death penalty would be better or worse than life in prison and whether either is actually morally acceptable. The debate soon heats up, with the banker and the young lawyer facing off. These two impulsive fellows make a bet. The banker bets that the lawyer could not stay in solitary confinement for five years, but if he could, he would pay him two million dollars. The lawyer says that he will stay fifteen years, and the bet is made.
Readers get the feeling that the banker and the lawyer are at least somewhat guided by their masculinity as they form this bet. They very much want to out smart each other. The banker is “spoilt and frivolous,” and the lawyer is confident to the point of arrogance. We might wonder if two women in similar circumstances would have made such a bet, and we probably decide that they would not be quite so competitive as to risk fifteen years of life and two million dollars.
Second, the lawyer-turned-prisoner commits himself to fifteen years of isolation. Again, readers might wonder if a woman could make such a commitment, for women tend to be more social than men and in greater need of interaction with others. As the prisoner's confinement continues, we see him move through a number of stages from near-despair to frantic study. In the end, he writes that he has experienced so much of humanity through books that he has come to despise human life. He feels that he knows it well, but we might question that since he has experienced nothing at all in reality for the past fifteen years. He does not know, for instance, what it truly means for a man to love a woman (although he thinks he does). He has not embraced his existence as a human male but rather cut himself off first physically and now emotionally from all people. Again, he is showing himself to be quite arrogant and even close to insane, for he has denied who he is as a human being.