Who is the winner of the bet?

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On the face of it, the banker wins the bet, because the lawyer leaves his cell five minutes before midnight—the time of his release—thereby violating the terms of the bet. In doing so, the lawyer lets go of the two million that would have been given to him had he...

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stayed in his cell until the very last minute. Through the fifteen years of his imprisonment, the lawyer learns a lot about life and the material wealth of the world. Before the prison term, he was materialistic and easily swayed by worldly things. This is one of the reasons why it was easy for him to place a bet that required giving away fifteen years of his prime life for the sake of money. Afterward, he learns that money is not everything. As he says in his letter to the banker, he "despises freedom, life, health, and all the so-called blessings of the world.” He says that “everything is void, frail, visionary, and delusive as a mirage.” He has come to realize that life is fleeting: it can be here one second and gone the next. The question then is this: Does life imprisonment “kill by degrees”?

If one should answer this question by looking at the lawyer’s physical looks (“he was a skeleton, with long curly hair like a woman’s, and a shaggy beard. The color of his face was yellow, of an earthy shade; the cheeks were sunken, the back long and narrow, and the hand upon which he leaned his hairy head was so lean and skinny that it was painful to look upon”) then it could be said that indeed the banker wins the bet. However, the bet was placed to determine whether the lawyer could last fifteen years in complete isolation—this he has proved possible, and he does not leave the cell a “dead” man. Rather, he is alive and even wiser, for he lets go of the stake.

Imprisonment changes the lawyer’s view toward life, while freedom does little to improve the life of the reckless banker. In fact, he loses a lot of money through the years so that he cannot even afford to pay the stake. As the fifteen years come to an end, he spends his time brooding about the two million dollars that he owes the lawyer. He even thinks to kill the lawyer so as to avoid paying the two million dollars. In this regard, he has lost the bet, having learned nothing from his free life while the lawyer proved his ability to survive and thrive.

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The banker certainly wins the bet in terms of the money that he put up.  Because the lawyer left the house before the 15 years were up, he loses and the banker keeps his money.

I'd say the banker wins in other ways too.  He learns something about himself, which is always good.  He may not like himself much t the moment the story ends, but he can get over that, I think.

It's pretty hard to argue that the lawyer wins.  He doesn't get the money.  He ends up miserable.  Hard to see how he won unless you're going to say that having this new knowledge of what the world is like constitutes winning.

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Who do you think won the bet?

I don't think that anyone wins the bet, really. The young lawyer ends up mentally broken, prematurely aged by fifteen years of complete isolation. As for the banker, he may have won the bet in a technical sense, but it's very much a Pyrrhic victory in that he's financially worse off than he was when he started.

Also, one could say that the banker's soul—such as it was—has been totally corrupted by the bet. When it seemed like the lawyer was about to win the two million rubles, thus plunging the banker into financial ruin, the banker got so desperate that he came within an inch of murdering the lawyer—but because the lawyer gave up the ghost at the last minute, the banker didn't need to go through with it. Nonetheless, the very fact that the banker seriously contemplated killing someone in cold blood indicates that he's been morally corrupted by the whole affair. In that sense, one could say that he's lost a piece of his soul by entering into this highly unusual wager.

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