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.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Bet

The Bet

In "The Bet," the lawyer enters solitary confinement on November 14, 1870 and is expected to remain there until twelve o'clock on November 14, 1885, thereby fully serving the fifteen years of the...

Latest answer posted March 6, 2021, 11:43 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Bet

In this letter, the lawyer explains how much he has learned while in confinement. He explains that over the past fifteen years, he has learned much about a wide range of subjects. As a result, he...

Latest answer posted March 6, 2021, 11:22 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Bet

At the beginning of "The Bet," the banker makes a bet with a young lawyer. Ultimately, the banker bets that the young man cannot endure fifteen years of voluntary imprisonment. The banker agrees to...

Latest answer posted March 6, 2021, 11:23 am (UTC)

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The Bet

The exposition is the introduction of background information about the characters, the setting, and anything else we might need to know in order to better understand the story. Often, exposition...

Latest answer posted March 6, 2021, 11:51 am (UTC)

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The Bet

Anton Chekhov published "The Bet" in 1889, and the short story follows Russian society in that same era. It is a largely bourgeois picture of society under the tsars, focusing on the wealthy and...

Latest answer posted March 6, 2021, 8:25 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Bet

"The Bet" begins with a banker and a lawyer arguing about whether the death penalty is a more humane punishment than life imprisonment. The banker argues that the death penalty is a more humane,...

Latest answer posted March 5, 2021, 11:26 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Bet

At the beginning of the story, the banker arranges a bet with a young man. The banker bets that the young man, a lawyer, cannot live voluntarily in self-isolation for fifteen years. The lawyer...

Latest answer posted March 5, 2021, 11:16 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Bet

At the beginning of "The Bet," a young lawyer voluntarily agrees to place himself in solitary confinement in order to prove that "it's better to live somehow than not to live at all." He wagers two...

Latest answer posted March 5, 2021, 11:46 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Bet

When the lawyer and the banker make the bet, both have enough financial stability to wager two million rubles without a moment's hesitation. They rush into this bet in an effort to validate their...

Latest answer posted March 5, 2021, 11:22 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Bet

Towards the end of "The Bet," the banker sneaks into the lawyer's room. The lawyer is at this point only a few hours away from winning a very large sum of money from the banker. The banker can no...

Latest answer posted March 5, 2021, 11:36 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Bet

The banker is so confident that the lawyer will not remain in solitary confinement for fifteen years that he doesn't hesitate to wager two million rubles in their bet. At the time of the bet, he...

Latest answer posted March 4, 2021, 11:21 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Bet

At the beginning of "The Bet," the banker and his guests are talking about capital punishment. The banker's guests mostly disapprove of the death penalty, but the banker defends it. The banker...

Latest answer posted March 4, 2021, 11:43 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Bet

At the beginning of "The Bet," the banker and several other people are having a discussion about whether the death penalty is a more humane form of punishment than life imprisonment. The banker...

Latest answer posted March 4, 2021, 12:45 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Bet

On the night the bet is made, the banker is an extremely wealthy man. He has organized a dinner party, inviting an array of guests who represent a scholarly and elite echelon of society. As his...

Latest answer posted March 4, 2021, 11:32 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Bet

At the end of the story, the banker decides that he will kill the lawyer, now prisoner, with whom he has made the bet. The banker had bet the lawyer that he, the lawyer, could not willingly remain...

Latest answer posted March 4, 2021, 11:30 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Bet

There are two equally important conflicts in this story. The first conflict is man vs. man as the banker and the lawyer become engrossed in a discussion about capital punishment at a party. This...

Latest answer posted March 3, 2021, 11:33 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Bet

In this famous short story by Chekhov, a lawyer and a banker agree to a bet. Emerging from an argument over whether the death penalty is more immoral than life imprisonment, the lawyer claims he...

Latest answer posted March 3, 2021, 12:56 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Bet

The lawyer begins his fifteen-year confinement with great feelings of loneliness and boredom. As the years pass, he begins reading voraciously, studying various languages and histories. He reads...

Latest answer posted March 3, 2021, 11:16 am (UTC)

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The Bet

"The Bet" opens with a banker's recollection of a party he had hosted fifteen years earlier. It is clear that he is proud of the collection of various professions and personalities which attended...

Latest answer posted March 3, 2021, 11:51 am (UTC)

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The Bet

The moral has to do with the nature of imprisonment. While the terms of the bet assume that being imprisoned in a cell is a kind of terrible punishment, the story suggests that, in fact, everyone...

Latest answer posted March 3, 2021, 12:15 pm (UTC)

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Summary