The Bet Literary Criticism

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  • 0:05 ''The Bet''
  • 0:59 Simplicity
  • 2:05 Irony
  • 3:34 Moral of the Story
  • 5:03 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.

A simple wager leads to a quest for purpose in Anton Chekhov's short story 'The Bet.' Chekhov constructs a simple plot through which he explores the philosophical meaning of fulfillment. These qualities exemplify why Chekhov is considered a master of the short story.

''The Bet''

For such a short and simple story, Anton Chekhov weaves a rich tapestry in ''The Bet.'' An argument about capital punishment turns into a ludicrous wager, which leads to an exploration about man's purpose in life. Chekhov does so much with so little. He takes this exploration and develops a moral to his tale. As a result, this short story transforms into a fable.

When we hear the word fable, most of us likely think of Aesop and his stories about tortoises, hares, and foxes. While characters of a fable are usually anthropomorphic, Chekhov uses human characters, a banker and a lawyer. He develops these characters in such a way that through the exploration of human knowledge, it leads to purpose and meaning. This discovery becomes the moral of the tale and defines ''The Bet'' as a fable rather than a short story.


Chekhov does not write complex stories. There's no need. He looks at particular scenes in life and writes about them. He does exactly this in ''The Bet.'' At a party, two men argue about the morality of capital punishment. They take opposing viewpoints, which then becomes a wager. Two million rubles is bet against the other man's freedom, as one of the men voluntarily agrees to fifteen years of solitary confinement. The rest of the story describes those years and how this man occupied his time.

The story is broken into two parts. The first part describes the bet and the lawyer's confinement. The second part describes the night before the bet's expiration. One man awaits his freedom, while the other tries to avoid paying the bet. The banker plans to kill the lawyer so he won't have to pay two million rubles, a sum he can no longer afford. Chekhov foreshadows this development early, hinting at what's to come. Whenever he mentions the banker, it's usually dark and rainy, both elements that portend a terrible event. Because of the simplicity in the story, Chekhov must make use of every word.


What's the point of fifteen years of confinement if at the last moment one no longer wants to collect two million rubles? Well, this is what Chekhov wants his readers to ponder. The banker mentions that the bet was 'all nonsensical and meaningless.' The lawyer admits that there was a time 'which I once dreamed of (the money) as paradise.' Now he 'despises' it. It seems as if their story is no longer about capital punishment, but something else.

Chekhov makes use of irony in the story to help emphasize some of his points. Irony is 'the recognition of a reality different from appearance.' When the banker, one to whom most people would entrust the care of their money, poorly manages his own finances, it's an instance of irony. The same could be said of the attorney, who ends up in solitary confinement voluntarily. Granted, the attorney is trying to prove a point, but he's also looking at a big payday if he completes the terms of the bet.

One of the more ironic moments is at the end of the story. The attorney has escaped from his confinement, and the bet is off. The banker comes in and collects the note. What does he do with it? He takes it home and 'lock(s) it up in the fireproof safe.' The banker saves the document in the event the attorney tries to come back and make a claim for the two million rubles. The banker ends up acting more like an attorney than a banker. Also, the note is as good to him as the money. It's small examples such as these that add depth to the story, but also inject a bit of humor.

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