What was the difference in his reading habits in the first year, in the second year and in the fifth year? What are the reasons for these changes in his liking for books?

Expert Answers
William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The prisoner's habits, including his reading habits, changed during his years of incarceration, showing how his thoughts and feelings were being influenced by solitude, loss of freedom, and deprivation of human contact. 

In the first year the books he sent for were principally of a light character; novels with a complicated love plot, sensational and fantastic stories, and so on.

His reading during his first year of imprisonment suggests that he did not really change very much. He just wanted to fill up the time with escapist material. Apparently he thought the best way to get through the sentence of solitary confinement was not to think about it too much. He had thought it would be much easier than it actually was. After all, he had comfortable living accommodations and could have practically anything he wanted--except human companionship.

In the second year the piano was silent in the lodge, and the prisoner asked only for the classics.

By "classics" the narrator must mean books in Russian and possibly, because the prisoner was well educated, in Latin. The number of classics in Russian would have been quite limited at that time. So the lawyer must have been reading Roman classics in the original language and Greek classics such as Homer translated into either Latin or Russian. This change in the prisoner's reading tastes shows that he was becoming much more serious-minded as a result of having to spend so much of his time alone. Solitude tends to make a man think about such things as the meaning and purpose of life. And many of the classic writers dealt with these questions. No doubt he read all of Plato in translation. Many of the classic authors were philosophers, and they could have a powerful influence on a young, intelligent man who was cut off from the frivolous pursuits he had enjoyed when he was free.

In the fifth year music was audible again, and the prisoner asked for wine. Those who watched him through the window said that all that year he spent doing nothing but eating and drinking and lying on his bed, frequently yawning and angrily talking to himself. He did not read books. Sometimes at night he would sit down to write; he would spend hours writing, and in the morning tear up all that he had written. More than once he could be heard crying.

Evidently the prisoner read serious classics during his second, third, and fourth years of confinement--but in the fifth year "He did not read books." He must have exhausted the classics that were available to him in Russian and Latin. Or else he must have felt he had exhausted everything that the ancient writers had to say about the problems that occupied his mind. This could happen to any intelligent man who spent so much of his time reading--perhaps for twelve or fourteen hours every day. Eventually he would want to express his own ideas. But the prisoner tears up everything he has written. Why? Because he is dissatisfied with it. He still feels he doesn't know enough. He wants more intellectual input. And he wants it from more modern writers whose works would only be accessible in foreign languages. He knows there are many such writers, but most of them are only names to him. So:

In the second half of the sixth year the prisoner began zealously studying languages, philosophy, and history. He threw himself eagerly into these studies - so much so that the banker had enough to do to get him the books he ordered. In the course of four years some six hundred volumes were procured at his request. 

The prisoner is not studying languages just to be studying languages. He is studying them because they will give him access to a whole world of learning. The banker has trouble obtaining the books because most of them are in foreign languages. The lawyer's years of solitude have obviously made him more and more serious and fastidious. The effect of his imprisonment is very much like what happens to holy men such as Buddhists who spend their time in isolated meditation. And by the end of his term of imprisonment, the lawyer will apparently have attained the same sort of enlightenment as religious mystics who give up all possessions and all worldly pleasures in favor of what Buddha called "nirvana," the absence of desire.

At the end of ten years the prisoner shows how much he has changed by writing a note to the Banker, whom he addresses as his Jailer:

"My dear Jailer, I write you these lines in six languages....The geniuses of all ages and of all lands speak different languages, but the same flame burns in them all. Oh, if you only knew what unearthly happiness my soul feels now from being able to understand them!" 

The surprise ending of Chekhov's "The Bet" shows the prisoner has learned that enlightenment is far more important than money. He vanishes just before he would have been entitled to collect the money that was due him for winning the strange bet. He leaves a note, part of which reads:

"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 ..."