What is the setting of "The Bet"?

The setting of “The Bet” is Russia in the late nineteenth century. Specifically, most of the story takes place in a lodge in the banker's garden, where the lawyer must spend fifteen years in solitary confinement in order to win the bet.

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"The Bet" takes place in nineteenth century Tsarist Russia. (As this story was originally published in 1889, this makes the story's setting contemporaneous to the era in which it was written.) Furthermore, note that Chekhov focuses on the urbane, professional sub-stratus of the Russian class structure, with its two main characters being a banker and a lawyer. Such individuals would have enjoyed a lifestyle and social respectability far removed from the experiences you'd have expected from peasants or industrial workers at the time. This background is all the more significant given the story's ending, in which the lawyer, after his years of isolation, comes to disown and despise his entire lifestyle and the materialist values that drive it.

However, with the exception of the party scene itself (presented as a flashback at the beginning of the story), we don't see much of the wider society which these characters inhabit. The story's action is actually much more limited in its setting, unfolding largely within the confines of the banker's mansion and its grounds, where the lawyer has spent the last fifteen years in voluntary captivity, alone in a lodge in the banker's garden, in order to win a bet for two million rubles. Chekhov sets his story at the very end of that time-frame, when the bet is about to come due.

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We know that Chekhov's short story “The Bet” takes place in late-nineteenth-century Russia. We also know that it begins one dark night in autumn during a social gathering at which the eponymous wager is made between a lawyer and a banker.

Later on, the action—if one can call it that—moves to a lodge in the banker's garden. Here the lawyer must live for fifteen years in solitary confinement. If he succeeds, then he will win the bet and earn himself the princely sum of two million rubles.

The lodge is the most important setting in the story, as it provides the location for the lawyer's gradual mental deterioration. All alone inside the lodge and with no human company, the lawyer tries hard to compensate for the lack of people by immersing himself in books and music. However, this does not fulfill his desperate need for human interaction and connection. The lawyer needs human company, and without it, he slowly but surely starts going out of his mind.

The claustrophobic setting of much of “The Bet” is somewhat appropriate, as it illustrates the narrowness of the world inhabited by the Russian bourgeoisie, which is always a target of satire for Chekhov.

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In the first part of the story, the banker's study provides the setting. The story is told in the form of recollection as the banker paces from corner to corner. The banker recalls the party where he made a bet of two million roubles with a young man, wagering that he couldn't survive fifteen years imprisoned in solitary confinement.

The place of solitary confinement is described as the "garden" wing of the banker's house. We never see it ourselves, but we learn the prisoner has access to books and music. We learn of his behaviors and desires through the notes he sends out.

In part two, it is the last day of the bet. It is cold, dark, and rainy, with a harsh wind. For the first time, the setting is described precisely, as the banker heads to the prisoner's wing:

The clock had just struck three. The banker was listening. In the house everyone was asleep, and one could hear only the frozen trees whining outside the windows. Trying to make no sound, he took out of his safe the key of the door which had not been opened for fifteen years, put on his overcoat, and went out of the house. The garden was dark and cold. It was raining. A keen damp wind hovered howling over all the garden and gave the trees no rest. Though he strained his eyes, the banker could see neither the ground, nor the white statues, nor the garden-wing, nor the trees. Approaching the place where the garden wing stood, he called the watchman twice. There was no answer. Evidently the watchman had taken shelter from the bad weather and was now asleep somewhere in the kitchen or the greenhouse.

Finally, the banker enters the prisoner's room. We see that it has a table, two chairs, and books strewn on the carpet. We discover that the prisoner has learned to have no interest in the things of the world, including the banker's money.

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The first line of the story identifies the season during which the story takes place: "It was a dark autumn night." Further, the first paragraph references a discussion concerning capital punishment (otherwise known as the death penalty) in a "Christian State." Therefore, we know at least that the story takes place during the season of fall and in a country where the government sponsors Christianity as the state religion. We learn later in the story that the imprisonment of the lawyer was originally scheduled to end at twelve noon on November 14, 1885. Therefore, since we know that the lawyer stays in his confinement until just a few hours before this moment, we can surmise that the story takes place on November 13 and 14 of the year 1885. Beyond the comment about the Christian state, however, we don't have a really definitive indicator of where the story takes place: it could be anywhere, perhaps, that has a stock exchange (as we know the banker lost much of his money through risky speculation) and state-sponsored Christianity.

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Anton Chekhov uses the artistic device of contrast effectively in his story. It opens with the banker remembering the scene in which the bizarre bet had been made. It was in his home during a big all-male party where there was a lot of talking, laughing, joking, and a certain amount of quarreling. The author does not say as much, but at a party like this there must have been some heavy drinking being done. No doubt the guests were drinking straight vodka as well as various wines with their sturgeon and caviar.

There had been many clever men there, and there had been interesting conversations.

It was probably only because both the lawyer and his host were drunk that they made such a fantastic bet. The banker remembers how he tried to call the bet off later that evening.

"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. Don't forget either, you unhappy man, that voluntary confinement is a great deal harder to bear than compulsory. The thought that you have the right to step out in liberty at any moment will poison your whole existence in prison. I am sorry for you."

But they were both committed because they had formalized the bet in front of such a large assembly of important men. It was a bit like being committed to a duel. Neither could back down without losing honor.

Then at the end of the story, both the banker and his prisoner are all alone. There is a sharp contrast between the feeling of loneliness at the end of fifteen years and the hearty camaraderie depicted in the opening scenes. The prisoner is alone because he is in solitary confinement. The banker is alone because he has grown old and sickly. He doesn't want to indulge in rich foods and liquors which will only leave him with indigestion and might even make him seriously ill. And he has grown frugal with the loss of so much of his capital. He doesn't care to entertain anymore on such a scale. And since he doesn't offer lavish hospitality to a bunch of men who were mostly freeloaders and fair-weather friends, he doesn't have the circle of acquaintances he had fifteen years ago. The banker appears to be all alone in his big house and all alone in the world.

The note the prisoner leaves behind seems to be referring directly back to that frivolous party of fifteen years earlier at which the fateful bet was made:

"You have lost your reason and taken the wrong path. You have taken lies for truth, and hideousness for beauty. You would marvel if, owing to strange events of some sorts, frogs and lizards suddenly grew on apple and orange trees instead of fruit, or if roses began to smell like a sweating horse; so I marvel at you who exchange heaven for earth. I don't want to understand you.
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