“The Bet” by Anton Chekhov begins with a discussion about the death penalty. A banker gives a party in which this topic creates dissension among the men. A young lawyer takes a bet with the banker that he can stay fifteen years in solitary confinement; and, in the end, he would receive two million dollars. The point of the bet is that any life is better than no life.
The rules are that the lawyer will stay on the property of the banker and will have no human contact for fifteen years. He can have anything that he wants involving music, books, entertainment, or food.
Through the years, the lawyer goes through many emotional stages. Initially, he is depressed; then, he begins to study everything that he can get his hands on from languages to religion. The banker, on the other hand, has misused his money; and now if he pays off the bet, the banker will lose everything.
After much inner turmoil, the banker decides to kill the lawyer before the end of the bet to keep from having to pay the loan. He sneaks into the guest house. Just before killing him, the banker discovers a note that the lawyer has written.
The letter expresses the feelings of the lawyer after all this time alone:
- The man has become bitter.
- He expresses his hatred toward freedom, life, and health and everything that man holds dear.
- The lawyer details the things that he has studied during his internment.
- Further, he asserts that he has gained wisdom from his studies. Now, he states that he hates these books.
- He says that he does not want to interact with the banker because he despises him and all that he represents.
Consequently, the lawyer will leave five hours early because he does not want the money. He determines that he is now wiser than the banker. The lawyer will deprive himself of what he thought he once wanted more than anything in the world.
"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 banker is saved from ruin when the guard tells him that the man did leave five hours early. Taking the letter, the banker places it in the safe. The bet is over. The harshness and loneliness of the confinement have left the man bitter and with no understanding of the world to which he now goes.