It was a lucky thing that the prisoner decided not to claim the two million rubles, because the banker slipped into his room with the intention of murderiing him. The banker's conduct was proof of the corrupting power of money. Here he was planning to default on a bet after keeping a man prisoner for fifteen years, and not only planning to get out of paying the money, and planning to commit a murder, but also planning to pin the crime on an innocent man who would certainly get sent to Siberia for life.
"If I had the pluck to carry out my intention," thought the old man, "suspicion would fall first upon the watchman."
This assumption might or might not be correct. One would think that a lot of people would suspect the banker of killing his prisoner to get out of paying two million rubles. But perhaps the banker was influential enough to frame the poor watchman for his crime.
The lawyer initially made the bet because he wanted to win a fortune and live in luxury for the rest of his life. Once he found himself in solitary confinement, he realized that he would have to work hard at something in order to keep from going crazy.
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.
Chekhov is suggesting that fifteen years of solitary confinement, along with the study of the world's greatest thinkers, changed the lawyer into a man who was not only indifferent to money but indifferent to human society. No doubt he had become somewhat eccentric, but his indifference to material things was very much like that of people like Jesus, Buddha, Socrates, Gandhi, and Tolstoy.
In the letter he leaves behind him, the prisoner has written:
"Your books have given me wisdom. All the unresting thought of man has created in the ages is compressed into a small compass in my brain. I know that I am wiser than all of you."
Beginning by suffering from the absence of human society, the prisoner has come around to despising humanity and evidently planning to live out the rest of his life as a hermit.
The banker realizes that everything the prisoner writes about humanity is true of himself. He has spent his life dealing in money, thinking about money, worshipping money--and now he has grown old and has never found happiness or peace of mind. The prisoner's example makes him feel ashamed of himself.
At no other time, even when he had lost heavily on the Stock Exchange, had he felt so great a contempt for himself. When he got home he lay on his bed, but his tears and emotion kept him for hours from sleeping.
The bet the two men made at the party was a frivolous one, but it has had serious consequences for both. They have come to realize that there is something more important in life than money. The moral of "The Bet" might be stated in the words of one of the wisest men in history:
"Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal;
"But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.
"For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
He refused his prize because over the course of his imprisonment he had come to despise anything earthly or material, because ita ll turned to dust in the end. He believed that money was pointless, and wanted nothing ot do with anything the banker valued, all of which were material things.