The Bet by Anton Chekhov: Theme & Analysis

The Bet by Anton Chekhov: Theme & Analysis
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  • 0:04 'The Bet'
  • 1:24 Lawyer's Confinement
  • 3:02 Lawyer's Farewell Letter
  • 4:39 Value of Knowledge
  • 5:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

Anton Chekhov's 'The Bet' examines the value of life. First, it touches on the question of the morality of capital punishment. Then, the story goes deeper to examine the very meaning of man's existence.

The Bet

We've all made obnoxious bets, promising another person a ridiculous sum of money that something is or is not true. No one actually expects a payoff in these circumstances. They are absurd propositions that emphasize a point regarding our certitude about a particular topic. The Bet, by Anton Chekov, begins under such circumstances. A banker puts up two million rubles to prove his point.

The story begins at the banker's home. He is throwing a party, and there are many intelligent people in attendance. A discussion begins regarding the morality of capital punishment. Most of the men believe the death penalty 'ought to be replaced. . . by imprisonment for life.' The banker disagrees. He thinks 'the death penalty is more moral and more humane than imprisonment for life.' At this juncture of the conversation, a young lawyer speaks up.

The lawyer opines that 'both (forms) are equally immoral,' but he would choose life imprisonment, since 'to live. . . is better than not at all.' The banker interjects, and in the heat of the moment bets him two million rubles that he cannot endure five years of solitary confinement. The lawyer agrees, but makes it fifteen years rather than five. If the lawyer remains in confinement for fifteen years, he wins two million rubles. The banker and the lawyer seal the deal over dinner.

Lawyer's Confinement

There are a few conditions regarding the lawyer's confinement. He cannot have any visitors or speak to anyone. He will receive no letters or newspapers, but he 'might have. . . books, music, wine.' His place of confinement is an annex of the banker's home, and any messages he writes must be passed through the only window through which the lawyer can see the outside world. Thus, his confinement begins.

Chekhov condenses the lawyer's activities over the first ten years. The lawyer gradually adjusts to his confinement. He plays piano and reads 'novels with a complicated love plot.' During the second year he reads classic novels. Not until the fifth year does he finally accept wine. During the sixth year, he really begins to develop. He reads and learns as much as he can. From this point until his tenth year, 'some six hundred volumes were procured at his request.'

He voraciously accumulates knowledge and understanding during his imprisonment. The lawyer learns all that he can about the world, languages, and philosophies, and writes in a letter to the banker about the 'unearthly happiness my soul feels now from being able to understand them.'

In his tenth year of isolation, the lawyer begins to read the Gospels. He spends quite a bit of time reading them, for the banker remarks how he 'waste(s) nearly a year over one thin book easy of comprehension.' After this, he reads indiscriminately as if he is 'trying to save his life by greedily clutching first at one spar and then at another.'

What does the lawyer gain from his reading? Chekov explores the theme of the value of knowledge by introducing a twist.

Lawyer's Farewell Letter

Fast-forward to the night before the fifteen years are up. The banker is in a tight spot. He can no longer afford the two million rubles. Over the course of the last fifteen years, he has squandered his fortune on risky ventures. Therefore, he decides to visit the lawyer under the cover of night and kill him. However, when he enters the lawyer's room, he finds him asleep with a few written pages scattered about the table. These pages comprise a final letter to the banker.

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