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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Bet” was written during a period when Anton Chekhov was greatly influenced by Leo Tolstoy, whose simple, didactic tales were popular during the 1880’s. The theme of “The Bet” is clearly the vanity of human wishes. Before his imprisonment, the young lawyer believes that life on any terms is better than death. He thinks that he can find the inner resources to live in solitude for fifteen years, and that the promise of a fortune will sustain him during the period of complete leisure in comfortable surroundings. Like the eighteenth century travelers in search of truth—Dr. Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas (from Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, 1759), for example—Chekhov’s captive moves from one enthusiasm to another, discarding one by one those sources of human happiness that he is permitted under the terms of his agreement.

It is interesting that the lawyer alternates between self-indulgence and disciplined study, moving from light books and music to classical literature, then back to escape through music and wine, then to intense study, first of the human world and then of the divine. At the end, Chekhov’s banker observes, he has no direction but strikes out erratically, obviously searching for something, anything, to give meaning to his life.

Unlike most truth-seekers in literature, the lawyer is deprived of human contact, love, family ties, friendship, and companionship. During the first year, Chekhov writes, the captive is lonely; evidently, solitude is less depressing during the later years. It might be said, however, that his exploration of all human possibilities is incomplete without an experience of personal relationships. Chekhov is aware of that omission and deals with it in the letter written by the lawyer at the end of his fifteen years alone. Through books, he says, he has experienced all human pleasures, from human love and the enjoyment of natural beauty to the exercise of tyrannical power, and though his emotional involvements have been vicarious, he believes that he can reject them on the basis of what he has learned.

The grounds of the lawyer’s contempt for life, as expressed in the final letter, are several. First, everything is empty. Various interests last for various lengths of time, but none can justify a life. Second, all that man considers beautiful is ugly, and all that he considers true is false; in other words, man can like this world only if he sees it as it is not, and the captive has lost the capacity for illusion. Finally, nothing endures; death destroys everything and everyone. All is vanity, then, empty, illusory, and doomed.

(The entire section is 794 words.)