In the story "The Bet," why do the lawyer and the banker make the bet?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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This is perhaps the hardest question to try to answer about Chekhov's story. The bet between these two men seems preposterous. The lawyer at least has something to gain if he can tolerate solitary confinement for fifteen years. But the banker has nothing to gain. He is putting up two million rubles for nothing. The only explanation for his behavior is that he feels positive that the lawyer will not be able to stick it out. In other words, the banker does not feel he is really risking anything. He thinks the lawyer is taking all the risk because the younger man will not be able to stand solitary confinement for more than a few years. The banker actually tries to talk the lawyer out of the bet.

"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 also says here that two million rubles is a trifle. He is showing off his riches and power. This was his motivation for offering the bet in the first place. They were arguing about capital punishment versus life imprisonment, and he said:

"It's not true! I'll bet you two million you wouldn't stay in solitary confinement for five years."

The banker is hosting a big party exclusively for men. Chekhov doesn't have a word to say about vodka or wine, but there must have been a lot of drinking being done at that kind of party. The bet sounds like something that might originate between two men who were drunk. Chekhov avoids any mention of liquor or intoxication because he doesn't want the reader to think the bet was nothing but drunken talk that didn't really mean anything and would be voided when the men were sober. He intentionally has the banker try to talk the lawyer out of canceling the bet later on when both are presumably sober. Chekhov had to do everything possible to make this bet convincing to the reader, since it is obviously so bizarre and even inhuman.

One of the ways Chekhov makes the bet seem credible is by having the banker himself admit that it was preposterous. On the evening before the fifteen years will be up and the banker will have to forfeit two million rubles, he is still wondering why he got involved in it.

"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? Can it prove that the death penalty is better or worse than imprisonment for life? No, no. It was all nonsensical and meaningless. On my part it was the caprice of a pampered man, and on his part simple greed for money ..."

The banker's explanation is also Chekhov's explanation. The bet was the caprice of a pampered man and simple greed on the part of the young lawyer. There is also the certainty, although Chekhov doesn't mention it, that they were both drunk. At any rate, the lawyer begins serving his fifteen-year sentence in one of the banker's guest lodges, and this proves that the bet was made in earnest. The reader forgets about the implausibility of the bet as he becomes interested in the lawyer's ways of coping with solitary confinement, as viewed from the perspective of the banker.

 

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