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"The Bet" is one of Chekhov's best-known short stories, and yet it is not characteristic of his kind of story-telling. It differs in having a definite dramatic conclusion, unlike many of his other stories, such as "The Lady with the Pet Dog," which ends without the conflict being resolved. It also differs in having a surprise ending, which is a trademark of the stories of Guy de Maupassant and O. Henry. The reader is astonished when the prisoner forfeits the bet by breaking his confinement just before his term of imprisonment expires. It ends conclusively with the prisoner leaving his confinement and disappearing, thereby saving the banker from financial ruin.
There is little if any foreshadowing in "The Bet" and not a great deal of suspense. The story, however, is a masterpiece of literary craftsmanship. It covers a large part of two lifetimes in just a few pages. The most noteworthy literary techniiques are exposition,flashback, dialogue, and surprise ending.
The story opens in the present:
It was a dark autumn night. The old banker was walking up and down his study and remembering how, fifteen years before, he had given a party one autumn evening.
Then in the same paragraph the author has adroitly taken the reader back in time. Notice that it is autumn in the opening sentence and the party was given on an autumn evening fifteen years earlier, signifying that fifteen years have passed. This becomes significant when the reader learns the lawyer has bet he can remain in solitary confinement for fifteen years.
It then becomes necessary for the author to use considerable exposition because of the complicated nature of the bet between banker and lawyer. First Chekhov has to explain how such a strange bet came about.
There had been many clever men there, and there had been interesting conversations. Among other things they had talked of capital punishment. The majority of the guests, among whom were many journalists and intellectual men, disapproved of the death penalty. . . . In the opinion of some of them the death penalty ought to be replaced everywhere by imprisonment for life.
By using a great deal of dialogue, Chekhov manages to make the past seem like the immediate present. It is also a much livelier way of presenting exposition. The story is based on what might seem like a preposterous bet, and one of Chekhov's main problems was to make it believable to the reader. Would anyone actually agree to spend fifteen years in complete solitary confinement without having a word of conversation with anyone, even with the guard who brought his food? Would the reader himself, or herself, agree to make such a bet, even for such a large sum as two million dollars?
By using dialogue to dramatize the argument leading to the bet, Chekhov actually manages to make it plausible. The lawyer is young, so fifteen years are only a fraction of his lifetime, and he should have plenty of time to enjoy the fortune if he wins. The banker is rich, and he can afford to lose the two million rubles.
The banker returns to the present.
And now the banker, walking to and fro, remembered all this, and asked himself: "What was the object of that bet? What is the good of that man's losing fifteen years of his life and my throwing away two million?"
He is considering murdering his prisoner to preserve his last two million rubles--but Chekhov delivers a shocking surprise ending to conclude this exceedingly complex story after only about five pages.
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