The Bet Themes
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 entire section is 1,544 words.)