What is the main concern of Anton Chekhov in "The Bet"?
I suggest that Anton Chekhov's main concern in writing "The Bet" was to make the bet itself seem plausible. It seems fantastic that any man would propose to spend fifteen years in solitary confinement and also fantastic that another man would propose to keep him a virtual prisoner for that length of time. It also seems implausible that the banker would risk two million rubles without the lawyer putting up anything at all in return. The banker has to keep the lawyer in comfort, not like a real prisoner, and certainly not like the typical prisoner in solitary confinement.
He was allowed to have a musical instrument and books, and was allowed to write letters, to drink wine, and to smoke. By the terms of the agreement, the only relations he could have with the outer world were by a little window made purposely for that object. He might have anything he wanted - books, music, wine, and so on - in any quantity he desired by writing an order, but could only receive them through the window.
The prisoner has comfortable quarters in a spacious, furnished guest lodge. He is provided with presumably good food, and he can have wine with his meals if he so desires. He has a piano! How many prisoners in solitary confinement get pianos? He becomes a great reader, and the banker has to go to considerable trouble and expense to provide the six hundred books in a number of languages the lawyer devours over a period of four years.
Chekhov takes pains to make this bet seem plausible. One of the ways in which he tries to do this is by having the banker admit to himself several times that the bet was foolish and meaningless. For example, he asks himself:
"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 ..."
Chekhov does not say that the two men were drunk when they made the bet. But this was a bachelor party and there must have been a great deal of wine and vodka being consumed by all the guests. Chekhov doesn't mention liquor in connection with the bet because the reader would assume that such a bet would be automatically invalid. Rather, Chekhov has the banker talk seriously with the lawyer later on in order to establish that this bet is genuine and firm.
"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."
Once the bet has been made in front of a number of distinguished witnesses, the banker cannot back out of it; but he would like very much to have the lawyer back out, because already he doesn't like the thought of keeping a prisoner on his own grounds for fifteen years. Who would? It is like subjecting a fellow human being to torture, even though the prisoner never complains and seems to be making very good use of his time.
Chekhov establishes that the prisoner is a lawyer. This is to assure the reader that the banker will have to honor the bet if the prisoner wins. If the banker refuses to pay the two million rubles, he could presumably be sued for fraud, or breach of contract, or unlawful detainment, or something else. Besides that, the banker would be disgraced if he reneged on paying. The bet was made in front of a whole group of fairly important men.
The majority of the guests, among whom were many journalists and intellectual men, disapproved of the death penalty.
If the banker defaulted, the story would be written up in many newspapers, and his dishonorable conduct would be known all over Russia. When the lawyer sued him for two million rubles, the case would be covered in the newspapers for a long time.
So Chekhov's main problem seems to be with verisimilitude. He has to make the bet plausible, and he has to assure the reader, as well as the prisoner, that the banker must really pay two million rubles on a handshake-bet fifteen years after the bet was made. Chekhov does an excellent job. "The Bet" is his best-known, most frequently anthologized short story.