Why is there a flashback in "The Bet" by Anton Chekhov?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Chekhov masterfully uses flashback in order to condense time and filter out details that do not focus upon the psychological development of the main characters and the theme.

Often when reading a novel, readers turn back to earlier chapters and re-read them because the relevance of some passages has deepened as the narrative develops. In shorter works of fiction, authors often use flashbacks as tools to help people "re-read" what needs to be understood, as well as to filter out non-essential details. Flashbacks benefit a narrative when knowledge of conditions or actions from the past can be used to provide significance to present conditions in the narrative or to underscore theme.

In his story "The Bet," Anton Chekhov illustrates the vanity of the desires of man. The young lawyer believed that life in isolation would be no real sacrifice and he would profit greatly with his reward at the end of his term. But what he really learned is that without human contact, such things as books, music, writing, languages, theology, and history are of little value without anyone with whom to exchange ideas and share the emotions that these studies evoke.

Through the use of flashback, the older and wiser banker looks back upon the time of the bet and he realizes,

On my part it was the caprice of a pampered man, and on his part, simple greed for money...

In a similar fashion, the letter written by the lawyer who has spent fifteen years in isolation explores his wisdom gained from experience as he looks backward. After an impulsive wager affected so much of their lives, both of these men now realize how shallow and vain their thinking has been all these years.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

Posted on

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Anton Chekhov, author of "The Bet" chooses to tell his story primarily through flashback for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is an interesting way to tell a story! Secondly, and perhaps the most important reason, is that if Chekhov had told the story in chronological order, it might have been a novel instead of a short story. The flashback technique gives the reader the story much more quickly. We learn the reason for the bet, we learn bits and pieces about each of the main characters. We learn how the lawyer spends his time while he is imprisoned. Finally, we see the story play out as the banker decides to kill the lawyer, the lawyer writes his letter saying he will forfeit the two million dollars, and the banker feeling temporarily ashamed of himself as he discovers the letter.

In other words, the flashback moves the story forward and develops the characters quickly. If this story had been written in the order in which it occurred, we readers might have had to go through all those fifteen years of imprisonment with the lawyer. The flashback gives us enough information that we can get to the deeper story and meaning without doing that. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

Posted on

Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial