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Anton Chekhov’s “The Bet” is an ironic story about a young man who, on a large bet with a wealthy banker, voluntarily submits to solitary confinement for fifteen years. The young man’s purpose is to show that solitary confinement was preferable to the death penalty, because, in his words:
To live anyhow is better than not at all.
Over the course of his confinement he reads many books, plays the piano, drinks wine, writes out his thoughts, but does not have any interaction with other human beings. Meanwhile, the banker foolishly loses most of his fortune, and begins to fear for his financial future when it appears that the young man will serve the fifteen years and win the bet, depriving the banker of the remainder of his money.
The ironic twist comes at the end when the banker sneaks into the sleeping prisoner’s room on the last day of the bet, planning to kill him to avoid paying off the bet. The prisoner, sleeping as the banker enters, has written a letter stating that the he will leave the room just five hours before completing the terms of the bet, thereby forfeiting his right to the fortune. It also reveals how the prisoner has been affected by the fifteen years alone:
It is true I have not seen the earth nor men, but in your books I have drunk fragrant wine, I have sung songs, I have hunted stags and wild boars in the forests, have loved women . . .
However, these books, in the end, do not bring him happiness:
And I despise your books, I despise wisdom and the blessings of this world. It is all worthless, fleeting, illusory, and deceptive, like a mirage.
He finds that he rejects civilization. The years alone have taught him that mankind has deceived itself and created a world that leads not to happiness and fulfillment, but to emptiness:
"You have lost your reason and taken the wrong path. You have taken lies for truth, and hideousness for beauty."
After reading the letter, the banker feels “contempt for himself,” presumably because he is guilty of just what the prisoner is writing about: believing in the lies mankind has lived by. However, this does not stop him from continuing to follow “the wrong path,” for the story’s final lines are:
To avoid arousing unnecessary talk, he took from the table the writing in which the millions were renounced, and when he got home locked it up in the fireproof safe.
He locks up the letter so that he will have proof that the prisoner has lost the bet. The banker is still thinking about money and holding on to what he can of his fortune, even though the prisoner has just given him this staggering example of how it is the wrong way to live life.
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