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Anton Chekhov

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Compare and contrast the banker and the lawyer in "The Bet."

Schopenhauer mentions “the law of compensation” in one of his essays, and Emerson wrote an entire essay titled “Compensation” in which he states:

The same dualism underlies the nature and condition of man. Every excess causes a defect; every defect, an excess. Every sweet hath its sour; every evil, its good. Every faculty which is a receiver of pleasure has an equal penalty put on its abuse. It is to answer for its moderation with its life. For every grain of wit there is a grain of folly. For every thing you have missed, you have gained something else; and for every thing you gain, you lose something. If riches increase, they are increased that use them. If the gatherer gathers too much, nature takes out of the man what she puts into his chest; swells the estate, but kills the owner. Nature hates monopolies and exceptions. 

The lawyer in Anton Chekhov's story "The Bet" is forced to compensate for his confinement by trying to improve his mind through reading, thinking, and writing. He even teaches himself foreign languages. As a result he changes dramatically from being just another professional man motivated by greed and vanity into a sort of holy man who despises material things. Initially the lawyer only had potential. The intelligent reader can’t help thinking that he would do the same thing himself if he had to spend fifteen years in solitary confinement. Naturally he would do a lot of reading, and naturally this would improve his mind and change his character—providing he chose good books. It is reading that changes all of us. If we read great writers we acquire some of their greatness. That would seem to be the main reason for reading the works of writers like Plato and Aristotle. “The Bet” proves that if a person achieved the highest human wisdom he wouldn’t care about money or material things at all. He would be like Buddha or Jesus or Gandhi or Socrates, all of whom owned nothing and wanted nothing.

The banker, in contrast to the lawyer as Chekhov intended, does nothing to improve his mind over the same fifteen years. All he thinks about is making money. His obsession with money has had a negative effect on his character. He seems weaker both morally and physically than he was fifteen years earlier when he was full of self-confidence. He is frightened by the same prospect of being a penniless outcast that the lawyer voluntarily embraces. The banker is actually thinking of murdering his prisoner to get out of paying the large sum he will legitimately owe him. The banker doesn't even scruple about letting one of the household servants be falsely accused and convicted of the crime and sent off to Siberia. This greedy man has become like the mythical King Midas, who is punished by having everything he touches, including his own daughter, turn into solid gold. Even the food King Midas tries to eat turns into hot gold in his mouth. The banker is a good illustration of what Emerson says in his famous essay "Compensation":

If the gatherer gathers too much, nature takes out of the man what she puts into his chest; swells the estate, but kills the owner.

When a person gets old he finds that money doesn’t do him much good because there is little he can do to get enjoyment out of it. He has to cut out, or at least cut back on, drinking, smoking, and eating. He doesn’t care to travel. New clothes mean nothing to him. He has already acquired most of the things he needs. 

Shakespeare says something similar in Measure for Measure:

If thou art rich, thou'rt poor;

For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows,

Thou bear's thy heavy riches but a journey,

And death unloads thee. Friend hast thou none;

For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,

The mere effusion of thy proper loins,

Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,

For ending thee no sooner. Thou hast nor youth nor age,

But, as it were, an after-dinner's sleep,

Dreaming on both; for all thy blessed youth

Becomes as aged, and doth beg the alms

Of palsied eld; and when thou art old and rich,

Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty,

To make thy riches pleasant.

What is the Banker's biggest problem?

Chekhov's "The Bet" is an unusual story in many ways. For one thing, it is unusual because it deals mainly with the transformation of a man's character during solitary imprisonment for fifteen years--and yet it is not told from the prisoner's point of view but from that of the Banker, the man who is keeping him prisoner. Here is the opening:

It was a dark autumn night. The old banker was walking up and down his study and remembering how, fifteen years before, he had given a party one autumn evening.

Chekhov chose to tell his story this way because he needed to have a problem for dramatic purposes. The Lawyer has no pressing problem. He will be taken care of for fifteen years, and all he has to do is pass the time. In some ways he is in an enviable position. The Banker is providing him with comfortable accommodations, good food, even wine, books, and nearly anything else his prisoner could wish for. It would be a challenge, albeit an interesting challenge, to write that story from the Lawyer's point of view inside a lodge in the Banker's garden. But the Banker has a very real problem, and it keeps growing over the years. He is running out of money, and he is afraid he won't be able to pay off the bet if his prisoner really sticks it out for the full term.

And now the banker, walking to and fro, remembered all this, and asked himself: "What was the object of that bet? What is the good of that man's losing fifteen years of his life and my throwing away two million? Can it prove that the death penalty is better or worse than imprisonment for life? No, no. It was all nonsensical and meaningless. On my part it was the caprice of a pampered man, and on his part simple greed for money ..."

The story opens on the very night before the fifteen-year term will expire. The Banker's problem is now acute. The bet was for two million rubles. That was a relatively trivial sum fifteen years ago, but now it amounts to practically everything the Banker has left. If he pays off the bet tomorrow, he will be bankrupt. He will have to spend his old age as a pauper. But what is the alternative? He made the bet in front of a large assembly of important men. If he simply refuses to pay he will be disgraced. And, what is more, his prisoner is a lawyer! The Banker can be dragged to court and have a judgment lien placed on all his property, including a hold on all his liquid assets. 

"Cursed bet!" muttered the old man, clutching his head in despair "Why didn't the man die? He is only forty now. He will take my last penny from me, he will marry, will enjoy life, will gamble on the Exchange; while I shall look at him with envy like a beggar, and hear from him every day the same sentence: 'I am indebted to you for the happiness of my life, let me help you!' No, it is too much! The one means of being saved from bankruptcy and disgrace is the death of that man!"

Chekhov was wise in only giving hints of what was going on inside the prisoner's mind during all those fifteen years. The Banker, as well as the reader, are taken completely by surprise when it turns out that the prisoner has experienced a complete spiritual transformation during his incarceration and no longer wants the money. The Banker gets to keep his last two million rubles, but he seems fated to have a wretched, meaningless existence for the remainder of his life. He has lost his nerve. He will be afraid to risk a penny of his remaining capital by lending or investing.

Chekhov created a chilling and memorable story when he made the artistic decision to remain in the Banker's point of view from beginning to end. The reader actually sees the folly of materialism which the prisoner repudiates in his departing letter. The Banker's lust for money nearly drove him to commit a dastardly murder and to contemplate pinning his crime on one of his servants, who would get sent to Siberia. The protagonist was saved from having to commit the crimes he was planning, but he knows in his heart he has become a cowardly villain, an ugly specimen of humanity.

What is the moral of "The Bet"?

The story is told entirely from the Banker's point of view, although it is the transformation of the Lawyer that contains the real message or moral. We only know what is happening with the prisoner because of the things he orders from his keeper. The prisoner naturally reads many books. He even learns foreign languages so that he can read other books. Over the long, solitary years his reading becomes more and more serious, judging from the titles and authors he requests. But then:

Then after the tenth year, the prisoner sat immovably at the table and read nothing but the Gospel. It seemed strange to the banker that a man who in four years had mastered six hundred learned volumes should waste nearly a year over one thin book easy of comprehension. Theology and histories of religion followed the Gospels.

The prisoner will spend the remaining five years of his confinement studying and meditating on the Christian message contained in the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He has finally, after ten years of solitary confinement, found the answer he has been looking for, and he seems finally content. He is evidently not interested in the teachings and rituals of the Russian Orthodox Church but in the original words of Jesus Christ himself. Apparently Anton Chekhov felt the same way, as did his friend Leo Tolstoy.

The most pertinent verses in the Gospels, as far as this story applies to both the Lawyer and the Banker, are probably to be found in Chapter 6 of Matthew, which are rendered in beautiful English in the King James translation of the Bible.

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal.
But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Thoughts such as these are what inspire the prisoner to relinquish the two-million rubles which the Banker would be forced to pay him next morning if he stayed. Both the Banker and the Lawyer realize the truth of what is expressed in Matthew 6. 

What is the setting of "The Bet"?

Anton Chekhov uses the artistic device of contrast effectively in his story. It opens with the banker remembering the scene in which the bizarre bet had been made. It was in his home during a big all-male party where there was a lot of talking, laughing, joking, and a certain amount of quarreling. The author does not say as much, but at a party like this there must have been some heavy drinking being done. No doubt the guests were drinking straight vodka as well as various wines with their sturgeon and caviar.

There had been many clever men there, and there had been interesting conversations. 

It was probably only because both the lawyer and his host were drunk that they made such a fantastic bet. The banker remembers how he tried to call the bet off later that evening.

"Think better of it, young man, while there is still time. To me two million is a trifle, but you are losing three or four of the best years of your life. I say three or four, because you won't stay longer. Don't forget either, you unhappy man, that voluntary confinement is a great deal harder to bear than compulsory. The thought that you have the right to step out in liberty at any moment will poison your whole existence in prison. I am sorry for you."

But they were both committed because they had formalized the bet in front of such a large assembly of important men. It was a bit like being committed to a duel. Neither could back down without losing honor.

Then at the end of the story, both the banker and his prisoner are all alone. There is a sharp contrast between the feeling of loneliness at the end of fifteen years and the hearty camaraderie depicted in the opening scenes. The prisoner is alone because he is in solitary confinement. The banker is alone because he has grown old and sickly. He doesn't want to indulge in rich foods and liquors which will only leave him with indigestion and might even make him seriously ill. And he has grown frugal with the loss of so much of his capital. He doesn't care to entertain anymore on such a scale. And since he doesn't offer lavish hospitality to a bunch of men who were mostly freeloaders and fair-weather friends, he doesn't have the circle of acquaintances he had fifteen years ago. The banker appears to be all alone in his big house and all alone in the world.

The note the prisoner leaves behind seems to be referring directly back to that frivolous party of fifteen years earlier at which the fateful bet was made:

"You have lost your reason and taken the wrong path. You have taken lies for truth, and hideousness for beauty. You would marvel if, owing to strange events of some sorts, frogs and lizards suddenly grew on apple and orange trees instead of fruit, or if roses began to smell like a sweating horse; so I marvel at you who exchange heaven for earth. I don't want to understand you.

Is the banker wise?

Gamblers have a term for the kind of bet a man is sure to lose. They call it a "sucker bet." What characterizes a sucker bet is that one bettor knows the outcome in advance. For example, a gambler might spend his evenings reading the world almanac and pick out certain facts that others might dispute, then bring them up as general questions to start an argument leading to making a bet. Good questions are: "What is the biggest state in the United States? All right, what is the second-biggest state? What is the longest river in the world?" Never bet with a man who is holding the answer-book in his hand!

There are some people who could tolerate solitary confinement for fifteen years and others, many others, who could not. The lawyer likes the bet the banker proposes because he knows he could spend fifteen years alone if he had a few things to keep his mind occupied. It is the banker, probably drunk on vodka, who initiates the bet:

"It's not true! I'll bet you two million you wouldn't stay in solitary confinement for five years."

The lawyer not only leaps at the proposal but he offers much better terms.

"If you mean that in earnest," said the young man, "I'll take the bet, but I would stay not five but fifteen years."

Why does the lawyer volunteer to stay in solitary confinement for three times as long as the banker proposes? Undoubtedly because the lawyer really wants to make that bet and doesn't want the banker to change his mind. The bet has not been formalized. So far it is only talk. A lawyer is a lawyer. He wants it all spelled out. If the banker didn't believe the younger man could spend five years in solitary confinement, he certainly wouldn't believe he could spend fifteen. The lawyer is calling the banker's bluff in front of a large group of their mutual acquaintances. The banker can hardly back down at this point. But he is making a sucker bet, because the lawyer knows his own character and knows what he can do. As a matter of fact, the lawyer, who is undoubtedly an introvert who enjoys solitude, actually likes the idea of having someone provide him with a cosy cottage, food, wine, books, a piano, and comfortable furniture for fifteen years. No doubt he has always wanted the time to devote to study, meditation, and writing. Perhaps he feels instinctively that it is something his soul craves. 

So the banker, for all his worldly wisdom, is walking straight into a sucker bet. He will not only lose his two million rubles, but he will have to provide what appear to be luxurious accommodations and gourmet meals for his prisoner, as well as going to considerable expense to obtain some six hundred esoteric books in several different languages. 

How can the lawyer be sure of collecting if he wins?

This is a very serious bet these two men are making. The young lawyer is undertaking to spend fifteen years of his life in solitary confinement. But how can he be sure he will collect the two million rubles if he wins? It would be terrible to think that he might endure fifteen years of solitary confinement and then have the banker refuse to pay. After all, their agreement is not in writing. It is what might be called a "gentlemen's wager" confirmed and solemnized with a handshake.

The author of this ingenious story, Anton Chekhov, has taken this question into consideration and has done his best to make the bet binding. For one thing, the bet was made in front of a large number of fairly important witnesses.

The old banker was walking up and down his study and remembering how, fifteen years before, he had given a party one autumn evening. There had been many clever men there, and there had been interesting conversations....The majority of the guests, among whom were many journalists and intellectual men, disapproved of the death penalty. 

Chekhov deliberately mentions that many of the guests were journalists. If the banker reneged on the bet his disgrace would be known all over Russia, because the journalists would surely see that the story got into print.

Another important factor is that the man who undertakes to serve the fifteen years in solitary confinement is frequently referred to as a lawyer. This is to suggest that if the lawyer were to win the bet and the banker were to try to get out of paying the two million rubles, the lawyer would know how to take him to court and sue him for something like "breach of promise" or "breach of a verbal contract." And the lawyer would have plenty of witnesses to call on his behalf.

Thirdly, Chekhov makes the other bettor an extremely wealthy banker. 

And this wild, senseless bet was carried out! The banker, spoilt and frivolous, with millions beyond his reckoning, was delighted at the bet.

It would not be wise to make a bet involving two million rubles with anyone but a very rich man. At the time the bet was concluded the banker considered a couple of million rubles a trifle. He takes the young lawyer aside and tells him:

"Think better of it, young man, while there is still time. To me two million is a trifle, but you are losing three or four of the best years of your life. I say three or four, because you won't stay longer."

The banker fully expects to win and keep his money because he can't believe that anyone could stand to spend fifteen years in solitary confinement. But this banker finds himself in a tight spot when the lawyer amazes him by remaining a prisoner right up to the night before the time is up.

Fifteen years before, his millions had been beyond his reckoning; now he was afraid to ask himself which were greater, his debts or his assets. Desperate gambling on the Stock Exchange, wild speculation and the excitability which he could not get over even in advancing years, had by degrees led to the decline of his fortune and the proud, fearless, self-confident millionaire had become a banker of middling rank, trembling at every rise and fall in his investments.

The banker does not consider flatly refusing to pay the two million rubles. He couldn't stand the disgrace. And even if he did refuse to pay, there seems to be a strong possibility that the lawyer could take him to court and get a judgment against him for two million rubles. The banker made the bet without considering two possibilities. One was that the lawyer might actually be able to endure fifteen years in solitary confinement. The other was that he himself might lose so much money in fifteen years that two million rubles would no longer be a "trifle" but such a serious matter that he finds himself plotting to commit a murder to get out of parting with his money.

What is strange about the bet?

A troublesome aspect of Chekhov's story "The Bet" is the way the initial argument between the banker and the lawyer evolves into a very different sort of bet. The banker made the following statement leading to the bet:

"I have not tried either the death penalty or imprisonment for life, but if one may judge a priori, the death penalty is more moral and more humane than imprisonment for life...."

The lawyer disagreed in the following terms:

"The death sentence and the life sentence are equally immoral, but if I had to choose between the death penalty and imprisonment for life, I would certainly choose the second. To live anyhow is better than not at all."

So the question is whether capital punishment is better than imprisonment for life or vice versa. But when the bet is formalized it has nothing to do with either capital punishment or life imprisonment. The lawyer is betting that he can stand fifteen years of solitary confinement. The preceding argument had nothing to do with solitary confinement. 

When the lawyer says:

"...but if I had to choose between the death penalty and imprisonment for life, I would certainly choose the second,"

he is saying what most of us would choose under the circumstances. Looked at from the perspective of the convicted man rather than from that of the judge, imprisonment for life under halfway decent living conditions would be better than being executed. Life in prison would not be pleasant, but an intelligent person could find some way to build a little sanctuary behind bars and to get through his days. There is always reading and writing, and it might be possible to find one or two intelligent fellow convicts to converse with. We only hear of a few eccentric individuals who want to be executed without delay. They refuse to have their lawyers file appeals. They want no clemency or stays of execution. But most people would choose life under almost any conditions rather than death. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the great Russian novelist, actually spent years in prison in Siberia and writes about his experiences in The House of the Dead (1862).

The bet evolved as it did because Chekhov realized that the banker could not keep the lawyer a prisoner for life. The two million rubles would not do the lawyer much good if he couldn't collect them until he died. So the two men end up betting the lawyer can't stand solitary confinement for fifteen years. It is a strange bet, and it doesn't prove anything pertinent to the original disagreement--whether capital punishment is or is not preferable to life imprisonment. 

Why might Chekhov have chosen to open the story in a party setting?

The banker is throwing an all-male party, a "stag party." This is significant because the men would not be talking about prisons and capital punishment if there were ladies present. The banker is too proud to call the bet off without the lawyer's assent. The banker made the bet in front of a large group of important men. He would be humiliated if he backed out. That is why he tries to talk the lawyer into calling it off.

"Think better of it, young man, while there is still time. To me two million is a trifle, but you are losing three or four of the best years of your life. I say three or four, because you won't stay longer. Don't forget either, you unhappy man, that voluntary confinement is a great deal harder to bear than compulsory. The thought that you have the right to step out in liberty at any moment will poison your whole existence in prison. I am sorry for you."

Chekhov knew he would have a hard time selling the reader on his story's premise. So he deals with the possible objections by having the banker himself acknowledge them. 

And this wild, senseless bet was carried out! 
"What was the object of that bet? What is the good of that man's losing fifteen years of his life and my throwing away two million? Can it prove that the death penalty is better or worse than imprisonment for life? No, no. It was all nonsensical and meaningless. On my part it was the caprice of a pampered man, and on his part simple greed for money ..."

By stating the reader's own objections, Chekhov shows his literary skill. He doesn't try to ignore the reader's doubts but meets them head on. Then when the solitary confinement actually begins, the reader is more likely to accept the bizarre terms and conditions as plausible.