“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.
It is significant that after he sees the shrunken, miserable captive whom he had intended to kill, after he reads the letter denouncing human existence, the banker feels contempt not for the world but for himself. Does he feel guilt because he has destroyed a life? Does he feel shame because he was ready to commit murder rather than lose his money? Does he feel that the captive has higher ideals than he? Chekhov leaves the banker’s reaction unexplained. The banker, however, is not ready to renounce life; he locks the note in his safe as insurance against possible accusations.
One of the problems with this story is that the author seems uncertain as to his theme. Surely Chekhov does not agree with the captive that nothing is worthwhile, although he does realize that no enthusiasm in life seems to be permanent. The fact that Chekhov concludes “The Bet” with the banker’s self-protective gesture suggests that the world is not ready to agree with the lawyer. Furthermore, the unnatural appearance of the captive leads readers to believe either that life has worn him down much faster than usual or that his life has been much harsher than the lives of most people. Is he truly wise? Or have fifteen years of solitary confinement warped his judgment? Again, Chekhov leaves the question open.
That Chekhov was uncertain about what he intended to prove in the story, other than the fact that human reactions are unpredictable, is indicated by the third section of the story, which he omitted in his collected works. In it, at a party a year after the prisoner’s escape, the banker is expressing his admiration for the lawyer, the one man of principle whom he has ever encountered. Suddenly the lawyer appears, announces his love of life, declares books a poor substitute, and asks for a considerable sum of money, threatening suicide if he does not receive it. The banker agrees and then is overcome by the desire himself to renounce life, but realizing that his life is no longer happy enough to make the gesture meaningful, he rejects the impulse and declares the lawyer the winner of the bet.