In Chekhov's "The Bet," what are the terms of the bet made between the young lawyer and the middle-aged banker? According to the way Chekhov presents his characters, what do you think actually...

In Chekhov's "The Bet," what are the terms of the bet made between the young lawyer and the middle-aged banker? According to the way Chekhov presents his characters, what do you think actually motivated each man to agree to the bet?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The bet between the banker and the lawyer seems to change over the short time between their original argument and the actual bet being agreed upon. There is a general discussion of capital punishment versus imprisonment for life, with some of the men at the party contending that capital punishment is more humane and others that life imprisonment is more humane. The lawyer expresses his opinion as follows:

"The death sentence and the life sentence are equally immoral, but if I had to choose between the death penalty and imprisonment for life, I would certainly choose the second. To live anyhow is better than not at all."

Nothing has been said about solitary confinement for life or even for a long period of time. It would seem to many people that solitary confinement for life would be worse than death. But then the banker shouts:

"It's not true! I'll bet two million you wouldn't stay in solitary confinement for five years."

There is obviously a great difference between solitary confinement and confinement with other unfortunates for company. Solitary confinement is usually reserved as a form of punishment for misconduct by a prisoner, and some can hardly tolerate it for more than a few days. People can go insane in solitary confinement for long periods of time. Yet the lawyer makes no distinction:

"If you mean that in earnest," said the young man, "I'll take the bet, but I would stay not five but fifteen years."

Evidently he could have won the two million rubles in only five years but insisted on making his imprisonment three times longer and hence three times more dreadful than what the banker had proposed.

There is no mention of alcohol in the opening scene of this story, but we must assume that both the banker and the lawyer have been drinking pretty heavily, along with most of the guests. Being Russians, they have all probably consuming large quantities of vodka. Checkhov apparently deliberately refrains from saying anything about drinking because he wanted to impress on the reader that this bet was made in earnest and that both men wouldn't decide to change their minds the next morning by mutual agreement. After all, the banker has nothing to gain and two million rubles to lose, while the lawyer is letting himself in for an ordeal he can hardly imagine at the time he makes the bet.

The lawyer is not treated the way a common criminal would be treated in a Russian prison. He is treated more like an honored guest, probably because the banker feels guilty about holding him a prisoner. The lawyer receives good meals and could have wine if he wanted it. He even has a piano in his lodge.

He refused wine and tobacco. Wine, he wrote, excites the desires, and desires are the worst foes of the prisoner; and besides, nothing could be more dreary than drinking good wine and seeing no one.

But then after five years of confinement, he does ask for wine and gets it. Nothing is said about how the prisoner would be treated, but the banker provides everything he asks for, including six hundred books in the course of four years. The two men made the crazy bet when they were both drunk, and they stuck to it because the banker had given his word in front of a big assemblage of important men, while the lawyer was too stubborn and proud to leave his prison. Thus, the bet became more serious and more binding as the years passed.

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