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As the story opens, the banker is thinking about the bet he made fifteen years before. He was holding an all-male party and the conversation turned to the subject of capital punishment.
The majority of the guests, among whom were many journalists and intellectual men, disapproved of the death penalty.
The young lawyer does not exactly express disapproval of the death penalty, but he says:
"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."
It is this statement that leads to the making of the bet between the banker and the lawyer. Although the narrator does not say so, it would seem that all the men are intoxicated, since it would appear to be the type of all-male party at which there would be a lot of vodka and wine being drunk. The lawyer's statement leads to the banker making a preposterous proposition.
"It's not true! I'll bet you two million you wouldn't stay in solitary confinement for five years."
So it might be said that the banker is pro-capital punishment and the lawyer is anti-capital punishment. The dispute escalates until the final bet involves solitary confinement, which was not brought up during the original discussion. The lawyer voluntarily agrees to spend fifteen years in solitary confinement on the banker's estate, and the banker agrees to pay him two million rubles if he can do it. The bet is apparently not formalized in a written contract, but it is made in front of a large number of influential men. If the banker should default he would be disgraced. A number of these men are journalists. They would certainly publicize the banker's dishonorable behavior throughout Russia if he should keep a man a prisoner for fifteen years and then refuse to pay him. Besides, Chekhov specifies that the young man is a lawyer. He would be able to take the banker to court for breaching a verbal contract and would almost certainly win his case. He would be able to present plenty of witnesses who attended the party at which the bet was made.
The bet is fantastic, but Chekhov manages to make it credible and realistic. In a relatively short story we see the change in the characters of both men. The banker has lost a lot of his money and is reduced to planning to murder his prisoner in order to avoid paying him. And in the fifteen years, as a result of in-depth reading and solitary meditation, the prisoner has become transformed into a sort of holy man who no longer cares anything about money.
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