Last Updated on March 3, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 750
Anton Chekhov's short story "The Bet" is fundamentally about the meaning of life, and this is the main theme of the story. Chekhov explores what that meaning might be, and in order to do so, he also explores other themes, such as crime and punishment, freedom and imprisonment, and loneliness and greed.
Crime and Punishment
The story begins with a group of people at a party discussing the death penalty and whether it is a punishment which is "immoral, and unsuitable for Christian States." Some of the guests say, however, that the death penalty is "more moral and more humane than imprisonment for life." The lawyers case is complicated in the sense of crime and punishment, as he has, at least as far as readers know, not committed any crimes. His voluntary imprisonment is less about punishment and more about proving a point, and the banker warns him that voluntary imprisonment will be more difficult to bear than compulsory confinement. For a criminal, there is no option to give up and walk away, and the imprisonment might represent a higher purpose of atonement. However, for the lawyer, the reward at the end is not salvation, but monetary gain. His case is not one of crime and punishment, but rather sacrifice and reward. This calls into question whether the bet can truly be considered an accurate measure of whether the death penalty or imprisonment for life is more humane, as the stakes and context are vastly different.
Freedom and Imprisonment
Early in the story a bet is struck between a banker and a young man. The former bets the latter that he will not be able to survive fifteen years in solitary confinement. However, the lawyer can give up the bet anytime he chooses with no real consequence outside of forfeiting the money, meaning that he is, in effect, his own jailer. His prison is not literal in the sense that nothing is truly preventing him from leaving; instead, his prison is ideological. His own convictions and his desire for wealth trap him in the bet. His decision to leave early is not an act of submission or forfeiture, but rather a declaration that he has been freed from the constraints of things such as morality, idealism, and materialism. His recognition of life as a meaningless veneer has, for better or worse, freed him from the need for money or the need to be proven correct, allowing him to leave his self-imposed prison with no regrets.
The young lawyer accepts the bet because he believes that life in any form is better than death. So sure is he of his convictions that he even adds an extra ten years to the banker's proposed sentence. If the lawyer was only concerned with the money, then he would have accepted the initial term of five years; his decision to extend the bet to fifteen years suggests that his greed is not for material wealth but rather intellectual validation.
The Meaning of Life
Although the man survives the fifteen years without freedom and without human interaction, he is reduced to a state almost indistinguishable from death. He becomes "a skeleton with the skin drawn tight over his bones" and a "yellow" face described as "emaciated." With this image, readers are left to draw their own ideas about the meaning of life. It seems that the young man has survived after a fashion, but has paid a price far greater than even he expected. He has been reduced to a mere shell of a human.
Nonetheless, the young man himself comes to a very different conclusion. He says that the fifteen years of imprisonment have taught him to "despise freedom and life and health." He has also learned, he says, that life is "worthless, fleeting, illusory and deceptive, like a mirage." His fifteen years of solitude have taught him that life is merely a temporary illusion and that people would be better off focusing their efforts on heaven. Essentially, the things that people value are only constructs, and true value comes from other sources. However, whether his bleak view is true or not is up for debate. The banker "weeps" for the lawyer, out of both guilt for his planned murder and also, perhaps, out of recognition of his own role in the young man's ruin. Ultimately, whereas the lawyer is transformed beyond recognition, the banker is left relatively unmoved, more concerned with protecting his dwindling fortune from "unnecessary talk" than on the implications of what has happened.
Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 794
“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.
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