In "The Bet," what does the prisoner's reading suggest about his moods at different times?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The banker has agreed to keep the lawyer supplied with reading material throughout his solitary confinement.

In the first year the books he sent for were principally of a light character; novels with a complicated love plot, sensational and fantastic stories, and so on.

In the second year the piano was silent in the lodge, and the prisoner asked only for the classics.

In the second half of the sixth year, the prisoner began zealously studying languages, philosophy, and history. He threw himself eagerly into these studies—so much so that the banker had enough to do to get him the books he ordered. In the course of four years some six hundred volumes were procured at his request.

Then after the tenth year, the prisoner sat immovably at the table and read nothing but the Gospel.

In the last two years of his confinement the prisoner read an immense quantity of books quite indiscriminately. At one time he was busy with natural sciences, then he would ask for Byron or Shakespeare. There were notes in which he demanded at the same time books on chemistry,, and a manual of medicine, and a novel, and some treatise on philosophy or theology.

The prisoner’s reading in the first year suggests that he was mainly interested in passing the time and keeping from being bored. He did not yet realize the reality of the term he had committed himself to spending in solitude. In the second year he seems to have realized that he ought to make better use of his time, but he does not really have much education except in the law. Studying for such a profession requires a person’s full attention for years and prevents him from learning much about other things. That is why it is common to meet doctors and lawyers who seem lost in conversations that go outside their professions. The prisoner seems to be realizing that he has missed a great deal in reading nothing but legal documents and newspapers. The only books he knows to ask for are Russian classics he has only heard about.

By the sixth year, the prisoner has exhausted works in Russian and begins learning foreign languages in order to be able to read great works in other languages, as well as to lose himself in study. Having mastered “six languages,” he naturally acquires an interest in the  literatures of other lands and other times. He undoubtedly reads all the best works of ancient Rome and ancient Greece. The banker, like ourselves, can only imagine how strong an influence all this deep reading might have on a man, especially one living in lonely isolation. The serious reading only whets his appetite for more knowledge, until he finally seems satisfied with having acquired the limited wisdom that even the best authors can provide.

In the tenth year the prisoner seems to have digested all his reading into the understanding that is provided by the New Testament. And in the last two years of his confinement he does not seem to be taking other books very seriouosly. He will read just about anything, the way a person staying in a mountain cabin might pick up whatever book or magazine had been left behind by the previous guest, just to have something to pass the time. The prisoner has satisfied his curiosity about the meaning of life and has achieved a sort of psychological and spiritual closure.

"The Bet" is a very short story, but Chekhov manages to create the illusion of the passage of a full fifteen years in a few pages.

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