What is the moral of the story "The Bet" by Anton Chekhov?

The main moral of the "The Bet" concerns the shallowness of material wealth, as one who is internally rich is not wishing for anything. A secondary theme is about the death penalty. Life imprisonment is portrayed as the better option to death, as the person has the time to develop character. However, the story also suggests that this idea maybe should not be readily accepted.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The moral of Anton Chekhov's short story "The Bet" might be summed up in the famous lines of a poem by Richard Lovelace, "To Althea, from Prison," in which the poet says:

Stone Walls do not a Prison make,
Nor Iron bars a Cage.
More prosaically, the moral of the story is that mental and spiritual freedom do not depend on physical freedom.
Over the fifteen years that the bet takes place, the lawyer is a prisoner for some of the time, but the banker is a prisoner all the time. The lawyer is initially miserable in his confinement, but he learns to free himself in the manner of ascetic philosophers through the ages through reading and contemplation. Many ascetics in the Russian Orthodox Church, and in other religions, have voluntarily placed themselves in the same position as the lawyer, going into a cave or a cell to meditate for many years. Such a course does not necessarily bring happiness. The lawyer is not happy, but he is freed from illusions by his solitary contemplation.
The banker, meanwhile, remains a slave to the material world, driven to desperation by his material losses and, even more significantly, by the thought of losing everything. Although he is physically free throughout the fifteen-year period of the lawyer's confinement, it becomes clear that he is the true prisoner because of his mental slavery.
Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

“The Bet” proves that if a person achieved the highest wisdom he wouldn’t care about money or material things at all. He would be like Buddha or Jesus, both of whom owned nothing and wanted nothing. This moral seems to be enhanced by the fact that the banker, whose whole life is devoted to handling money and accumulating wealth, is not happy or enviable but has deteriorated morally over the years.

When it comes time for him to pay the two million roubles, he is so attached to his dwindling capital that he is actually contemplating murdering the prisoner to get out of paying him for enduring fifteen years of solitary confinement. The story is told from the banker's point of view, so he may not realize how low he has sunk in that period of time, even though he was rich and had complete freedom.

Desperate gambling on the Stock Exchange, wild speculation and the excitability which he could not get over even in advancing years, had by degrees led to the decline of his fortune and the proud, fearless, self-confident millionaire had become a banker of middling rank, trembling at every rise and fall in his investments. "Cursed bet!" muttered the old man, clutching his head in despair. "Why didn't the man die? He is only forty now. He will take my last penny from me, he will marry, will enjoy life, will gamble on the Exchange; while I shall look at him with envy like a beggar, and hear from him every day the same sentence: 'I am indebted to you for the happiness of my life, let me help you!' No, it is too much! The one means of being saved from bankruptcy and disgrace is the death of that man!"

Not only is the banker seriously thinking of killing his prisoner, but he is actually considering having the watchman implicated in the crime and possibly executed for it or sent to Siberia.

"If I had the pluck to carry out my intention," thought the old man, "suspicion would fall first upon the watchman."

Fortunately for the banker, he finds a note describing what his prisoner has learned in studying books in solitary confinement, as well as what conclusions he has arrived at through his own meditations. Part of the note contains this indictment:

"You have lost your reason and taken the wrong path. You have taken lies for truth, and hideousness for beauty."

The most important part of the note, as far as the banker is concerned, comes at the end:

"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 I now despise. To deprive myself of the right to the money I shall go out from here five hours before the time fixed, and so break the compact ..."

A complementary moral to the principal moral regarding the vanity of materialism is that life imprisonment is a more humane form of punishment than the death sentence. It was the young lawyer who argued in favor of life imprisonment fifteen years earlier and the banker who said:

"I don't agree with you. . . . I have not tried either the death penalry or imprisonment for life, but if one may judge a priori, the death penalty is more moral and more humane than imprisonment for life."

The lawyer has not only proved that he could endure fifteen years of solitary confinement, but he has proved that life imprisonment is indeed more humane because it permits study and meditation, thereby enabling at least some criminals to develop completely new characters.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial