The Bet Study Guide
Introduction to The Bet
“The Bet” is a short story by Anton Chekhov, originally published in Novoye Vremya in 1889 as “Fairytale.” It was later republished as “The Bet,” with the third section omitted by Chekhov himself, in the fourth volume of Chekhov’s Collected Works. The story depicts the formation of a bet between a cynical banker and an idealistic young lawyer concerning the morality of the death penalty. The banker asserts that a quick execution is more merciful than prolonged imprisonment, whereas the lawyer claims that life in prison would be preferable. The bet is then decided: if the lawyer can spend fifteen years in total isolation, capable of contacting the outside world only through written notes, then the banker will pay him two million rubles.
In the end, both the banker and the lawyer lose some semblance of their humanity as a result of a bet that, ironically, concerned the humaneness of capital punishment. The banker, whose fortunes have dwindled in the fifteen years since the lawyer began his imprisonment, decides to murder the soon-to-be victorious lawyer in order to preserve his own wealth. However, when the banker enters the lawyer’s prison, he finds a note explaining that the lawyer intends to forfeit the bet by leaving his prison just hours before he otherwise would have proved victorious. The years of isolation with only books and philosophy for company have rendered the lawyer disgusted by humanity and its obsession with material wealth.
“The Bet” offers a complex rumination on both the meaning of life and the necessity of freedom. The bleakness of the story is often regarded as uniquely suited to the time and place in which Chekhov was writing. Russia experienced both rapid industrialization and tumultuous sociopolitical upheaval in the nineteenth century. Chekhov wrote openly about both the moral and economic decay that plagued his country, and such depictions were well received by fellow Russians. However, foreign audiences often dismissed Chekhov as needlessly pessimistic. It wasn’t until after the author’s death that his works began receiving recognition abroad. “The Bet” encapsulates much of what critics have come to appreciate about the so-called Chekhovian model of story writing: the story is driven by introspection more than action, the characters are relatively ignoble individuals who are regarded with a detached sort of sympathy, and the mood is defined by a mixture of frustration, melancholy, and psychological intimacy.
A Brief Biography of Anton Chekhov
Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) was an influential Russian author and playwright. Born in Crimea, Chekhov’s early life was marred by poverty, and he eventually enrolled in medical school in Moscow, selling short stories to various magazines on the side to help supplement his family’s income. As his writing gained popularity, Chekhov published several short story collections and plays while contuing to work as a medical doctor. Chekhov is considered one of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century, credited with shaping and legitimizing the short story genre. His impressionistic writing style, which emphasized character and mood over plot, represented a literary shift toward modernism, and Chekhov’s works influenced many of the great modernist writers of the twentieth century. His best-known works include the stories "The Bet" and "The Lady with the Dog" and the plays Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard.