Over the years of his confinement, what were the reasons for the changes in the lawyer's taste in books?
The story is told entirely from the banker's point of view. He cannot tell what is going on inside the lawyer's mind, since he never goes inside the lodge where the prisoner is confined and has no direct communication with him. All the banker knows about the lawyer's changing tastes and interests in reading-- and therefore can guess about his thoughts and feelings in his solitude-- comes from the books the lawyer requests.
In the first year the books he sent for were principally of a light character; novels with a complicated love plot, sensational and fantastic stories, and so on.
In this first year the lawyer is presumably just using books as a way of killing time. He must be preoccupied with getting through one day after another and not really concerned about what he reads. A lot of people are like that. They are discursive readers. They select books by their titles and never really remember them after they have read them. A lot of books are published to make money off such readers. They are trash, "chewing gum for the eyes."
In the second year the piano was silent in the lodge, and the prisoner asked only for the classics.
The prisoner may have read so much trash that he was beginning to see it was trash and to realize that he was wasting his time and could at least be improving his mind. He was growing more serious. He could see that he couldn't stand fifteen years of solitude without focusing on something. Otherwise he could go crazy.
In the second half of the sixth year the prisoner began zealously studying languages, philosophy, and history. He threw himself eagerly into these studies - so much so that the banker had enough to do to get him the books he ordered. In the course of four years some six hundred volumes were procured at his request.
The prisoner was beginning to become mature and serious. He wanted to understand the meaning of life. He read six hundred really profound books in the next four years and had to learn some foreign languages in order to read many of the books. This seems like an excellent way for a person in his situation to pass the time. However, after that period of intense study he read nothing but the Gospels, books on theology, and histories of religion for the next three years. It would seem that he had reached the conclusion that the six hundred books he had devoured did not contain the answers to the questions that preyed on his mind.
In the last two years of his confinement the prisoner read an immense quantity of books quite indiscriminately. At one time he was busy with the natural sciences, then he would ask for Byron or Shakespeare.
Apparently the prisoner had found what he wanted in the religious books he read for several years. After that he continued to read books because reading had become such an addiction and because he had nothing else to do. He must have learned not only to tolerate solitude but to enjoy it. For years he had been using authors as substitutes for friends and acquaintances. Where was the man he could talk to after such an intensive period of reading and meditation? Certainly not the banker! For the rest of his life the lawyer would be a solitary hermit. He had become like many famous men, including Socrates, Jesus, Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau, Diogenes, and so many others, who had decided that money is corrupting. The banker is a good example of a man who has been so thoroughly corrupted by money that he is actually contemplating murdering his prisoner in order to get out of paying him the two million rubles he owes him.
Neither the banker nor the lawyer wins the bet. The story is an unusual one for Chekhov, but the ending is characteristically Chekhovian in that nothing is really solved. The lawyer has attained wisdom, but does wisdom do him or anybody any good? He has sacrificed the best years of his life, and now
He was a skeleton with the skin drawn tight over his bones, with long curls like a woman's and a shaggy beard. His face was yellow with an earthy tint in it, his cheeks were hollow, his back long and narrow, and the hand on which his shaggy head was propped was so thin and delicate that it was dreadful to look at it. His hair was already streaked with silver, and seeing his emaciated, aged-looking face, no one would have believed that he was only forty.