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Chekhov had to justify the bet itself. It seems like an implausible bet that any man would undertake to spend fifteen years in solitary confinement. But Chekhov had the idea and he must have liked it. He knew he had to make the reader believe the whole incident really occurred. So he attacked the problem head-on of making his premise believable. He started right with the title. He established that the two bettors, the banker and the lawyer, made the bet in front of a group of important men. It would be hard for either of them to back out. Chekhov very conspicuously does not mention liquor. But at such a gathering of men there must have been a lot of drinking being done--vodka before and after the meal and wine with the food. This is the sort of bet a couple of men might make while they were drunk. But Chekhov wants to assure the reader that the bet was made in earnest and that neither of the men could call it off on the grounds that they had been drinking too much. So the author has the banker speak to the lawyer in private when both characters are apparently clear-headed.
"Think better of it, young man, while there is still time. To me two million is a trifle, but you are losing three or four of the best years of your life. I say three or four, because you won't stay longer. Don't forget either, you unhappy man, that voluntary confinement is a great deal harder to bear than compulsory. The thought that you have the right to step out in liberty at any moment will poison your whole existence in prison. I am sorry for you."
The banker doesn't like the bet. He is sorry he made it. He would like to call it off, but he prefers to try to get the lawyer to change his mind. What the banker says to him in private is an clear but guarded invitation to call off the bet. The banker is clearly indicating that he will be glad to do so if the younger man wishes. There is nothing in it for the banker. He doesn't like the idea of keeping someone a prisoner. Who would? Furthermore, the banker will be at the expense of providing everything his prisoner asks for, including some six hundred books, many of which are very hard to find.
Chekhov succeeds in convincing the reader that this preposterous bet was actually honored by both parties for fifteen long years. His title for the story, "The Bet," shows that he knew his biggest problem was with verisimilitude--making the reader believe in this bizarre, preposterous bet. The story is an anomalous one for Anton Chekhov, almost an aberration. Franz Kafka might have written it. Most of Chekhov's stories are pure realism.
There is no more appropriate title than "The Bet" for Chekhov's story because the bet, or wager, between the young man and the banker is central to the plot as well as to the psychological changes in the characters. In effect, the bet is both the cause and the result of what occurs with the main characters; moreover, this wager between the two men even involves the readers in their predictions, or "betting on" what the outcome of the story will be.
The act of betting is one that involves much of the psychological state of those who wager, their initial viewpoints, and the subsequent development of their states of mind. With respect to the young lawyer, his impulsiveness drives him to make the initial wager with the banker, and his egotism and rash youth cause him to "up the bet" to fifteen rather than five years, perhaps believing that the banker will not take this bet. However, the banker, equally confident, does accept the wager. Then, during this extensive period of fifteen years' confinement, the young man moves from self-indulgence to disciplined study as he matures, but regresses to escape as he is overcome by a factor upon which he has not figured--loneliness and alienation and their consequent hopelessness. These mental and emotional changes are not unlike the various mental states that one who bets goes through--although much more swiftly--as, for instance, he watches a horse race, a fight, or plays a card game in which he begins to anticipate his losses.
As the banker, who is the more passive participant in the wager, watches the lawyer survive his confinement, he, too, moves from confidence to despair, an inner death-in-life not unlike that of the younger man. In effect, the bet has endangered the sanity of both the men. For, while the lawyer writes
"I despise freedom and life and health and all that in your books is called the good thing of the world,"
the banker is dominated by the selfish urge to protect himself financially and contemplates murder when he discovers the lawyer asleep and "half-dead" from his despair. Thus, both men have, in the lawyer's words, "exchang[ed] heaven for earth" in the quick, impulsive act of making a bet.
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