Last Reviewed on March 3, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 334
The question which preceded the making of the bet at the banker's party some fifteen years prior to the story's present asked which is more immoral: life imprisonment or the death penalty? The banker, of course, argued that life imprisonment is far less humane than capital punishment because it results in a prolonged, drawn-out death, whereas the death penalty is quick. His stance differed from the majority of the guests at his party.
One or two people, including the lawyer, argued that both punishments are equally immoral, bit the lawyer claims that he would much rather deal with a sentence of life imprisonment himself because "to live anyhow is better than not at all." In other words, any life is better than no life, to his mind. It is ironic that, following a discussion of which punishment is more moral and humane, both men seem to lose their humanity.
The banker loses his humanity when he determines to murder the lawyer, a man who has already been through a lot, seemingly for no good reason. He does not want to have to pay the large sum they'd bet, as it will ruin him financially, and he ranks his financial situation well above his morality or humanity. He would rather murder another human being than go broke, and he finds himself to be contemptuous as a result.
The lawyer loses his humanity as a result of his studies of humanity. He says that we have lost our reason and traded heaven for earth. He writes, "I don't want to understand you," and he says how much he despises humans and everything they value. He sacrificed fifteen years of his life for a small fortune, and he has realized, since then, how much humanity privileges material wealth over spiritual wealth. He distances himself from humanity, having become an outsider observer rather than a participant in life. The central irony of the story is that both men lose their humanity over a bet about what is humane.
Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 304
Because “The Bet” is cast in fable form, the characterization is not as individualized as in Chekhov’s other stories, but rather, the banker and the lawyer serve as voices of two different viewpoints. Except for the letter written at the end of the fifteen-year period, Chekhov does not reveal the thoughts of the captive. On the other hand, the story begins with the banker’s memories and observations, proceeds to his worries about money and his resolution to kill the prisoner rather than pay the bet, and concludes with the banker’s self-contempt and with his self-protective gesture. The sequel discarded by Chekhov continues the focus on the banker’s point of view. Thus it might be suggested that Chekhov is more interested in the psychological and ironic possibilities of his account than in a didactic point.
Usually Chekhov’s imagery, too, reflects his psychological interest. Certainly in “The Bet” it is appropriate that the story begins on a dark rainy night and that the banker’s temptation to murder occurs on a dark, cold, rainy night, that he passes a bare bed and a cold stove on the way to the sealed room, and that the prisoner’s room is dark, with a dimming candle. All these images of death are consistent with the banker’s resolution, as well as with the lawyer’s death-in-life. Because they are seen through the banker’s eyes, however, they are particularly important as reflecting his own psychological condition, a despair that is itself a death-in-life, and that may finally be Chekhov’s particular interest in “The Bet.” For although Chekhov followed Tolstoy in constructing his story in the form of a fable, both the story as he finally published it and the longer, earlier version emphasize psychological realism more than certain truths about human existence.
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