The Bet Summary

In “The Bet,” an idealistic young lawyer and a jaded banker make a bet.

  • An idealistic lawyer and a prominent banker bet that the lawyer can’t survive fifteen years in prison. His prize if he wins will be two million rubles.

  • The lawyer is imprisoned in the banker’s garden house. Fifteen years later, the banker realizes that he will be ruined if the lawyer collects on the bet. He decides to kill the lawyer.

  • However, the mentally broken lawyer has lost his faith in humanity and gives up on the bet, walking out of his cell five hours before his sentence ends.


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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 650

When the story begins, an old banker is recalling a party fifteen years prior. He and his guests had discussed capital punishment, and most of the guests had condemned it as immoral. Many believed that it should be replaced by life imprisonment, but the host disagrees because he feels that it is more humane to kill a person quickly than to imprison them for the rest of their life, a fate that kills them slowly. One guest, a young lawyer, said that both punishments are immoral, but he would rather have life imprisonment himself because “to live anyhow is better than not at all.”

The banker then bet the lawyer two million rubles that he would not be able to withstand even a five-year solitary confinement. The lawyer declared that not only would he take that bet, but he would stay in this confinement for fifteen years. The banker is thrilled with the bet and has plenty of money to spend in such a frivolous way, but, over dinner, he tries to talk the lawyer out of it because the lawyer will lose years of his life. He also feels that submitting to voluntary imprisonment will be more difficult than mandatory imprisonment.

Now, the banker cannot even recall what the point of the bet was. It does no one any good for him to lose two million rubles and the lawyer to lose fifteen years of his life. It proves nothing. He remembers when it was decided that the lawyer would actually be imprisoned in one of the lodges in the banker’s garden. It was agreed that the lawyer could have books and wine and music but no human interaction, and he could pass notes out a small window, asking for whatever he wanted. From his notes, he seemed to have been very depressed during the first year, and he played the piano a lot. He read books of a “light character.” In the second year, he only asked for classics and stopped playing the piano. In the fifth year, he began to play again and seemed only to eat and sleep. Soon, though, he began to study history and languages “zealously,” and this lasted some four more years. Then, he read the Bible and more theology. In the final two years, he read anything and everything;

[his habits] suggested a man swimming in the sea among the wreckage of his ship, and trying to save his life by greedily clutching first at one spar and then another.

The banker remembers all of this and thinks about how, tomorrow, the lawyer will be free, and he will owe the man a great sum of money. The banker’s financial state has changed, and he will be ruined by this debt now. He curses the bet and the lawyer, wishing the other man would die; he then realizes that if he kills the lawyer, he can frame the night watchman. He sneaks out to the garden and breaks the seals on the lawyer’s door, entering the cell. The lawyer is asleep at his desk, where he has written a letter which the banker now reads. In the letter, the lawyer says that he has acquired great wisdom in these years and that he has learned to despise everything that others think is great about the world. To prove it, he says that he will renounce the money he once dreamed of because he now despises it too, and he says that he will leave his prison five hours early, so as to officially lose the bet.

The banker weeps with relief, but he feels contempt for himself. On the next morning, the watchmen report that they saw the lawyer climb out the window into the garden and leave the property. The banker goes to retrieve the letter and places it in his safe to protect himself from “unnecessary talk.”

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