What is the theme of "The Bet" by Anton Chekhov?
The banker is trying to prove that capital punishment is more humane than imprisonment for life. The lawyer is trying to prove that even solitary confinement is preferable to capital punishment. Naturally there has to be a large sum of money involved or else the lawyer would not consent to being kept in solitary confinement for fifteen years. The banker is so convinced that he is right that he doesn't expect the lawyer to last in his confinement for more than a few years, so the banker doesn't expect to lose anything except the expense of providing for the prisoner's needs. The argument did not initially involve solitary confinement. The banker only maintained that life in prison was more cruel than execution. But somehow the bet got around to solitary confinement versus execution. This must have been because Chekhov saw that he had no way of dramatizing a situation in which the banker could keep the lawyer locked up with a lot of other men in a maximum-security prison. The banker could afford to provide a sort of prison for one man but he had to be kept in solitary confinement. However, the condition of solitary confinement was ameliorated by the fact that, after all, the lawyer did not have to spend his entire life in a prison but only fifteen years of his life. Furthermore, the banker provided generously for his prisoner. He even offered to give him wine with his meals. The lawyer was probably smart to refuse the wine because he could have become a hopeless alcoholic during his confinement. He might have stayed drunk all the time just to make his imprisonment more endurable. What kind of a prison provides wine for the prisoners? The lawyer was undoubtedly getting gourmet meals too, as well as all the books he wanted to read. So Chekhov added these little nuances to the bet in order to make up for the facts that he could not show the lawyer living out his entire life in a prison with the company of other men. The banker and the lawyer must have been different types of men. The banker must have been an extrovert because he thought solitary confinement was unendurable. The lawyer, on the other hand, must have been an introvert who had what are usually called "inner resources." The banker loves money because he has no "inner resources." So the bet may only prove that capital punishment is preferable to some men while life imprison is preferable to others.
An earlier Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky, wrote memorably about prison life in The House of the Dead. The great American novelist Theodore Dreiser wrote about solitary confinement in prison in The Financier. Jack London wrote an intriguing but little-known short novel about solitary confinement in The Star Rover.
When trying to work out the theme of a story, we need to remember that the theme is the overall meaning of a work of literature that usually expresses a view or comment on life. Writers rarely state their theme directly; the reader must consider the complex interplay of all of the elements of the story in order to piece together the possible meanings of the work as a whole. Discerning themes always requires a tolerance for ambiguity - especially in an open-ended story like "The Bet" that raises more questions than it answers.
Considering this, there appear to be a number of possible themes that we could apply to this intriguing short story. One central idea seems to be concerning the value of earthly possessions and knowledge. Remember how the lawyer chooses to renounce the money he would gain by winning the bet, because he realises that all earthly treasures are ephemeral and will pass away:
"To prove to you in action how I despise all that you live by, I renounce the two million of which I once dreamed as of paradise and which now I despise."
The lawyer describes human learning and culture as being "worthless, fleeting, illusory, and deceptive, like a mirage." In his opinion, these things blind us to the ultimate reality of death that will "wipe [us] of the face of the earth as though [we were] no more than mice burrowing under the floor..." Surely this must lie at the heart of the message of this short story - the lawyer, through his time of reflection and study in solitary confinement, has realised and understood the true insignificance of man and the superiority of death in the face of all of our supposed achievements. This story thus cries out for man to not think too highly of himself and to realise his proper position in the order of things.