How does the writer's use of flashback at the beginning of "The Bet" add to your understanding of the plot?
"The Bet" is one of Chekhov's best and most famous short stories. It is beautifully constructed. It covers a period of fifteen years in just a few pages. Chekhov had several serious plot problems to solve. He wanted to write a story about a man who bets he can spend fifteen years in solitary confinement without having a mental breakdown or forfeiting the bet. This is a fantastic idea, but Chekhov had a problem with verisimilitude. He had to make the reader believe that anyone would actually make such a bet. He manages to make the main premise believable by several means.
First of all, he had to create a strong motivation for the lawyer. The motivation was money. He had to create a man who would be wealthy enough and daring enough to stake a large fortune and who could also be counted upon to pay that fortune if the lawyer managed to stick it out for fifteen years. Chekhov also had to indicate the ordeal the lawyer would suffer in solitary confinement for year after year. The writer avoids describing the prisoner's activities inside his room but merely focuses on the impression the banker gets from the outside.
It should be noted that the prisoner is not enduring the kind of solitary confinement that is used as punishment for disobedient convicts in ordinary penitentiaries. The lawyer is served good meals. He can order all the books he wants to read. He even has a piano in his lodge. These amenities are described only to make the bet more plausible to the reader. No one would consider spending fifteen years of solitary confinement in a cold, dark dungeon; but some readers might relate to the studious man who was treated like a special guest in a comfortable lodge with all the comforts he could desire.
The story is told exclusively from the banker's point of view, making it easy to describe how the bet came to be made by entering the banker's mind and describing the fateful evening in flashbacks. By dramatizing the argument leading up to the bet, the challenge, the acceptance, and so on, Chekhov manages to overcome his main problem which was to make the fantastic bet believable.
Fifteen years are covered quickly in the banker's memories. Chekhov adroitly begins his flashbacks almost immediately.
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.
And there we are back in the past. Chekhov never mentions a word about liquor being consumed at the party. But this is an all-male gathering, and it seems certain that these men would all be drinking vodka and wine and smoking cigars--or else it wouldn't be much of a party. The bet would probably not have been made if the banker and lawyer had not been somewhat intoxicated, but Chekhov does not want to suggest that it was not a serious bet, one which could be called off the next morning when the two men sobered up and realized how foolish they had both been. So liquor is not mentioned.
The flashbacks cover the origin of the bet and the whole fifteen years of imprisonment. Then Chekhov brings the story into the present with admirable dexterity:
The old banker remembered all this, and thought:
"To-morrow at twelve o'clock he will regain his freedom. By our agreement I ought to pay him two million. If I do pay him, it is all over with me. I shall be utterly ruined."