Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.