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

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I've always thought that the banker and the lawyer are a lot alike in many ways. I think they are both opinionated, brash, impetuous, strong willed, and intelligent. If they weren't any of those things, they likely would not have gone through with the bet. Both men strongly believe that...

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the other man is incorrect, and both men are willing to make a bet on it. Perhaps the public nature of their initial bet and perhaps some alcohol had something to do with creating such a ridiculous bet; however, both men see it through to nearly the full 15 years. Perhaps a reader could call that stupid, but I don't believe that either man is stupid. They could not have been successful in their jobs had they been stupid. Additionally, the lawyer has to be quite intelligent to read and understand the quality and quantity of the books that he read while in prison. As for how they differ, I think the end of the story shows this quite clearly. The banker is a man that doesn't have high moral standards. Money is everything to him, and that is why he is willing to kill the lawyer to keep his fortune. He is still a lover of the world and its pleasures. The lawyer, on the other hand, begins the story as a man that appears to love money. That's partly why he takes the bet; however, by the end of the story, he rejects money and just about everything that mankind has to offer.

"I despise wisdom and the blessings of this world. It is all worthless, fleeting, illusory, and deceptive, like a mirage. […] I marvel at you who exchange heaven for earth. I don't want to understand you."

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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.

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