How do the banker's views on capital punishment differ from the views of most of his guests in "The Bet" by Chekhov? 

How do the banker's views on capital punishment differ from the views of most of his guests in "The Bet" by Chekhov?


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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Anton Chekhov's "The Bet," the banker contends that capital punishment is more humane than life imprisonment. But, most of the guests at his party disagree.

Among the banker's guests are journalists and intellectuals; they disapprove of the death penalty, finding it immoral and against Christian purposes. Some feel that the death penalty should be done away with altogether. But, the banker disagrees, contending that the death penalty is actually more humane than life imprisonment. The banker asks his guests:

"Capital punishment kills a man at once, but life imprisonment kills him slowly. Which executioner is the more humane, he who kills you in a few minutes or he who drags the life out of you in the course of many years?"

Among the guests is a young lawyer, who is about twenty-five years of age. When he argues that life on any terms is better than death, the banker bangs the table with his fist, and impulsively bets the lawyer two million rubles that he cannot stay in solitary confinement for five years. Equally reckless, the lawyer insists that he can stay confined for not just five, but fifteen years. The banker takes the bet, and the lawyer says,

"Agreed! You stake your millions and I stake my freedom!"

Ironically, at the end of the fifteen years, the lawyer has suffered from isolation. He has had no direction to his learning because reading and writing about the potential of the human mind and soul is incomplete without sharing these ideas with others of his own ilk. Without companionship, he has despaired of life, writing in a letter to those who come after him:

I despise freedom and life and health and all that in your books is called the good things of the world.

The lawyer decides to leave before the appointed time, thus forfeiting the prize. But, he lays down his head and falls asleep. The banker, who has been watching to see if it is the end of the bet, discovers a

...skeleton with the skin drawn tight over his bones with long curls like a woman's, and a shaggy beard...his cheeks were hollow, his back long and narrow, and the hand...was so thin and delicate that it was dreadful to look at it.

The lawyer appears as though the life has, indeed, been dragged out of him, just as the banker has predicted.