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, as possibly the lawyer is not wise but psychologically warped from years in confinement.
“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...
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The apparent theme of “The Bet” is a discussion about capital punishment. The banker believes that it is more humane to execute a criminal than to keep him imprisoned for life; whereas the lawyer believes that life imprisonment is less cruel, and is willing to stake his own freedom on that belief. In the titular bet, the lawyer is even willing to live for fifteen years in solitary confinement, while the banker stakes two million rubles that the lawyer will not last.
However, this question is never directly answered; the lawyer chooses to leave his confines only hours before he would have won the bet, with neither side happy with the results. The reader must make up their own mind. What, then, is the point of this short story?
The lawyer, before leaving his prison, leaves a letter for the banker explaining his forfeit. During his time in confinement, the lawyer was allowed access to all of the books he wished to read. He eventually turned to philosophy, including the teachings of the Buddha, Jesus, and other ascetic leaders. Living alone and without any substantial material goods, it turned out, had given him time to learn that money and possessions were unnecessary, and were in fact detrimental to one’s well-being. He had given up fifteen years of his life for money!
The banker finds this letter on the night before the bet would conclude. Though he had begun the story very wealthy, his fortunes had turned, and losing the two million ruble bet would leave him destitute. He had approached the prison with the intention of murdering the lawyer – murdering another person over money. When the banker discovers the lawyer’s letter, he and the reader understand not only what he had been about to do – commit murder – but also what he had already done: stolen fifteen years from this once-young man, all for material gain.
The lawyer proved that he could live for fifteen years with practically nothing, and make himself a better person in the process. The banker, on the other hand, spent that time in the lap of luxury, and his moral character only degraded. The theme of the story “The Bet,” then, is not only the relative cruelty of capital punishment, but materialism and its reflection on one’s moral character. While the question over capital punishment is not answered directly, one can infer that the lawyer not only won the bet, but proved his point: a person in extended solitary confinement can at least improve his moral character, while capital punishment does not give that opportunity.