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

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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.

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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.
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“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.

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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.

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What is the theme of "The Bet" by Anton Chekhov?

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.

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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.

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What is the main concern of Anton Chekhov in "The Bet"?

The Bet addresses issues of materialism and the corruption of individuals in pursuit of wealth. The story described a situation where a banker and a lawyer engaged in a bet for and against the death penalty. The banker asserted that the death penalty was morally acceptable compared to life imprisonment. He stated that it was better to die at once rather than have a drawn out death at the hands of the jailer. On the other hand the lawyer affirmed that both the death penalty and life imprisonment were morally defective but if it were up to him, he would chose life imprisonment. This was because it was better to live in any condition rather than not live at all. The banker offered two million if the lawyer agreed to five years in prison. The lawyer increased the term to 15 years and agreed to be jailed at the banker’s lodge.

During his time in prison the lawyer read widely, played music and was comfortably accommodated. Through the books he developed a deeper understanding of life and human nature. This led him to despise human existence and their pursuit for earthly riches. Towards the end of the bet, the banker realized he could not fulfill the terms without going bankrupt. He weighed his options and decided to kill the lawyer in order to safeguard his wealth. His need to secure his material wealth degraded and compromised his character and personality, reducing him to a savage willing to do anything for money. He went to the prisoner’s abode to kill him but instead found a letter where the prisoner confirmed his disdain for how people lived and their materialism. To assert his changed persona, the prisoner decided to breach the bet, 5 hours before its maturity, in order to forfeit the money promised. Although the banker was left with his money intact, he also felt contempt for himself due to the contents of the letter, which he kept.

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In "The Bet" by Anton Chekhov, what does the story tell us about life and human nature?

Please remember that you are only allowed to ask one question. Your original question contained several separate questions, therefore I have edited it down according to enotes regulations.

This story remains incredibly ambiguous in terms of its purpose and ending, and thus is open to multiple interpretations. For me, one of the themes that clearly comes out is that earthly rewards are of little worth when we consider the spiritual and eternal rewards that are open to us. This is clearly demonstrated in the letter that the lawyer leaves behind after he leaves his shelter, thus breaking the bet a few moments before winning it, showing his contempt for the terms of the bet and the money he was due to win. Note what he says:

"And I despise your books, I despise wisdom and the blessings of this world. It is all worthless, fleeting, illusory, and deceptive, like a mirage. You may be proud, wise, and fine, but death will wipe you off the face of the earth as though you were no more than mice burrowing under the floor, and your posterity, yoru hsitory, your immortal geniuses will burn or freeze together with the earthly globe."

The lawyer is astounded at those, who through pursuing earthly wisdom and possessions, "exchange heaven for earth." Thus one possible theme or message is very clearly the way that we have lost our focus on spiritual and eternal rewards and have instead exchanged those for earthly rewards such as materialism.

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