Life imprisonment or capital punishment---that was the discussion that led to “The Bet” by Anton Chekhov. The point of view of the story is third person limited omniscient. Foreshadowing plays an important part in the story since the narrator looks back fifteen years in the past to recall the establishing of the bet.
Chekhov’s clever writing focuses not on the characters as much as the premise of the story. He wants the reader to ponder the question of the death penalty and life imprisonment.
His impetus in the story clearly takes on a deeper level when the reader begins to wonder what he might do if he were in the same situation. Then, the importance of the story comes to the forefront---isolation or gregariousness. Chekhov makes no decision for the reader. It is left to the reader to decide the ethical questions.
The two characters in the story represent two aspects of society—the young lawyer and the older banker. The bet becomes a contest between the two men involved. The initial event is the old banker remembering the reason for the bet which was the moral difference between the two punishments.
The banker argues that the death penalty is better because it was quickly over. The lawyer avows that any life is better than death.
The bet is made:
- Two million dollars to the winner.
- Five years confinement---stupidly, the lawyer changes it to fifteen years—of the lawyer.
- Solitary confinement on the property of the banker.
- No human contact during the time.
- The lawyer would be provided with anything that he needed. Uh oh. It's a stalemate. So the two made a bet—if the lawyer can stand to be in voluntary solitary confinement for fifteen years, the banker will pay him two million smackers. Now that's a lot of dough.
- At the end of time at midnight, the lawyer would receive his pay.
The story’s plot circles around the lawyer and the use of his time during his confinement. It is a detailed look at the human spirit and the need for interaction with other people. In the end, the lawyer realizes what a mistake the bet was and leaves early negating the bet.
This saves the banker who had misused his money and would have been bankrupt had he been forced to make the payment. To indicate the power of the bet and its impact on the contestants, the banker enters the lawyer’s room with the intention of killing him. The lawyer is sleeping and the banker reads a note that is left on the desk.
The notes states that the lawyer has experienced life through books.
"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. 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 ..."
The lawyer has decided that the materialism is worthless and all that is left is to die. The banker has been saved from financial ruin.