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The Bet: Short Story Summary

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  • 0:04 Betting
  • 0:31 The Bet Itself
  • 1:18 Activities in Jail
  • 2:09 The Twist
  • 3:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

A bet involving money and time is the main idea behind Anton Chekov's ''The Bet.'' In this lesson, you'll find a summary of this short story and learn more about the bet that changed both men's lives.

Betting

People make bets about a lot of things, like who's going to win this weekend's game or whether or not you can finish a ten-pound hamburger. In this lesson, we're introduced to a lawyer and a banker who make a bet with far more serious stakes on the line. The basic question is, how much is a human life worth? According to the author, Anton Chekov, in Russia in 1889, it could've been two million rubles - or about $34,000 by today's standards.

The Bet Itself

Which is worth more: two million rubles or 15 years of your life? That's the question presented in Chekov's short story, ''The Bet.''

When Chekov's story begins, we're introduced to a banker who made a bet at a party he hosted 15 years prior. The bet stemmed from a discussion of capital punishment, or punishment by death. The banker argued that death was a better alternative to life spent behind bars. The attorney took the opposite side, that life in prison would be better than a death sentence. The debate raged on, and from it, a wager was born.

In anger at being challenged, the banker waged a bet: two million rubles that the lawyer could not survive life behind bars. Believe it or not, the lawyer accepted the bet. The terms of the agreement were made: the lawyer would be voluntarily jailed and, if he endured 15 years behind bars, he would be awarded two million rubles.

Activities in Jail

When the time came for the lawyer to begin his sentence. He was 'jailed' in the banker's garden lodge and allowed no contact with the outside world including visitors or receipt of newspapers or letters. He could, in turn, write letters, read books, listen to music, smoke, and have wine.

The first year, the lawyer did a lot of light reading and piano playing to help stem his loneliness and depression. He refused all alcohol and tobacco, saying that, 'Nothing could be more dreary than drinking good wine and seeing no one.'

The second year, the lawyer stopped showing interest in the piano and took to reading literary classics. By the fifth year, the music from the piano had returned and the lawyer spent much time lounging on the bed, talking to himself and writing. He had also foregone his abstinence from alcohol and regularly drank wine. The next four years were filled with study: language, philosophy, history, and theology. By the tenth year, he was reading mostly from the Bible.

The Twist

The reader learns all this from the banker as he remembers all of these details the day before he is set to reward the attorney with the two million rubles. The only problem is the banker is no longer a rich man, but very much in debt.

Grieved by what has happened, the banker makes a decision to kill the lawyer and place the blame on someone else. The night of his terrible plan, he enters the lawyer's prison and is taken aback by the once young man's condition. The lawyer is no longer young and vibrant, but frail and aged, with sunken cheeks and a long beard.

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