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.
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.