The Bet By Anton Chekhov
The story, “The Bet”, is about a banker and a young lawyer who lay a bet with each other based on capital punishment and life imprisonment and whether the former is better than the latter. The story essentially deals with man’s progressive understanding of the useful precepts of life. Chekhov, with gentle irony, espouses the transience of material happiness and the permanence of spiritual bliss, a belief present within most religious traditions.
SUMMARY/ EXPLANATION OF THE SHORT STORY
“The Bet” is the story of a bet laid between two persons- a banker and a lawyer and deals with the humaneness of capital punishment and life imprisonment. The story begins on a “dark, autumn night” with the old banker reminiscing about a party he had thrown one autumn evening fifteen years ago. The party was full of intelligent people who engaged in an interesting conversation. One topic of discussion was capital punishment and its justifiability. Most of the people gathered in the party were disapproving of capital punishment and opined that it should be replaced by life imprisonment. But the banker disagreed saying that the death penalty is more moral and more humane than life imprisonment because the former kills a person instantly whereas the latter kills him slowly. But one of the guests countered this saying that both types of punishment are equally immoral as their purpose is to snuff out a life. The State cannot play the role of God as only He has the right to give and take life.
A young banker of twenty-five years, who was among the guests, however, opined that although both types of penalty were immoral, he would choose life imprisonment as it gives a person a chance to live anyhow. He considered it better than dying at once. Carried away in the midst of the spirited debate which arose among the people present, the banker laid a bet with the lawyer saying that he would pay him two million roubles (the currency of Russia is rouble) if he could stay in solitary confinement for five years. The lawyer agreed, saying that he would stay for fifteen rather than five years. Thus, the bet was carried out as the banker then could spare the two million. He was, however, of the firm opinion that the lawyer will never
win the bet.
Now the banker was recollecting all that happened fifteen years ago, realising the futility of the whole issue. He now considered it as “nonsensical and meaningless”. It was, as he says, “the caprice of a pampered man” on the one hand, and “simple greed for money” on the other. He remembered how it was decided that the lawyer would stay in an isolated cottage in the banker’s garden without any contact with the human world. His only contact with the outside world would be through a small window from which would be passed on food, books, music, wine, etc. to him. The agreement for fifteen years of isolation was strictly drawn and any attempt on the part of the lawyer to violate it would free the banker from paying the money.
The first year of the lawyer’s confinement saw him suffering from “loneliness and depression”. Strains from his piano wafted from the lodge. He refused wine and tobacco and asked for “light” books. In his second year of confinement, the piano was silent and classics were asked for. In the fifth year, he asked for wine and played the piano once again. Observers commented that he lazed around the whole year and cried at times. The second half of the sixth year was spent in studying languages, philosophy and history and the prisoner even wrote a letter to the banker in six languages correctly. After the tenth year, the lawyer read the Gospel and spent quite a lot of time over it. The last two years of seclusion saw him asking for a motley collection of books to be read.
Now the banker muses on the fact that the next day at 12 o’clock, the prisoner will walk out to freedom, and he himself will be ruined if he pays him two million as his finances have dwindled. He despaired the fact that the lawyer was only forty years and could well start life anew, while he himself would turn into a pauper. In desperation, the banker, therefore, made up his mind to kill the lawyer in order to save himself from bankruptcy.
With this intent in mind, he crept to the lodge and silently went in. He found the prisoner asleep on the table, but he looked almost unearthly with a skeletal appearance. There was a piece of paper on the table with something written on it. The banker thought that the lawyer no doubt must be dreaming of becoming rich and it would be an easy matter to stifle this emaciated man and no one would find any sign of violent death. But first, he decided to read what was written on the sheet of paper.
The banker was surprised to read that the lawyer had developed a great contempt for freedom and all the good things of life. Through the books he read, he has soared to flights of fancy, and become wiser than other men. But realisation had dawned upon him that all his wisdom was “fleeting, illusionary, and deceptive” and life was only transitory. He has a disdain for the people who had exchanged “heaven for earth”. Therefore, he has decided to renounce the two million and walk out from his confinement five hours before the stipulated time and so break the contract. Thus, the lawyer had spurned material happiness for spiritual bliss and enlightenment.
The banker, on reading the letter, was moved to tears and felt great contempt of himself for his behaviour and petty thoughts. He kissed the sleeping man and came out of the lodge. Next morning the watchman came running to tell him that the prisoner was seen climbing out of the window into the garden and then disappearing. The banker in order to avoid unnecessary gossip quietly put the letter in which the prize money was relinquished in his fireproof safe. Thus, the banker won the bet in the literal sense, but it is the lawyer who was the true winner as he had acquired a holistic understanding of life.
You may have analysed by now the pertinent theme in “The Bet”, that sometimes the lure of money and the sheen of material things blind us to what is really important in life. You may have heard the saying, “All that glitters is not gold.” Similarly, sometimes we are led by our greed to possess things which have the sparkle of gold, but which are actually worthless. In the story, the lawyer was goaded by the desire to acquire wealth, but after being kept in seclusion without access to physical goods for fifteen years, he became aware of the irrelevance of these things in the broad spectrum. The story thus deals with the progressive understanding of a man about life. But this happens only when by particular circumstances he was separated from the so-called ‘real-life’ of man and was kept confined in a room for fifteen years.
The idea of renouncing material happiness is central to many religions. You certainly know about Gautama Buddha, who was a prince, but he relinquished kingly comforts to assume the life of an ascetic and thereby gain spiritual enlightenment. The Greek philosophers, Socrates and Plato, also encouraged people to give up worldly possessions in order to acquire true knowledge. Jesus Christ, on the other hand, is the epitome of sacrifice for the good of the people. We must, however, understand that here human beings, in general, cannot forego all worldly happiness, but life will be worthwhile if we can devote some time to appreciate the world as God has made it instead of always hankering after money and comforts.
Chekhov has, in a very subtle way made us realise this very important aspect of life through the thought processes of his characters and this is his most distinctive quality as a writer.
If you read the story carefully, you will find that there are two main characters in it- the banker and the lawyer- and the story revolves around them. But you must understand one very important aspect regarding characterisation. When we speak of character, what do you generally think? Any person will assume ‘character’ to mean the moral character of a person. This however does not hold ground as regards a piece of fiction. Here, character means the dramatis personae, the persons who are actually involved in the drama and who are instrumental in carrying the story forwards. Let us now look at the main characters in the present story and how their thoughts drive their actions.
The story, as you have already read, depicts a situation in which a banker and a lawyer agreed on a bet based on the relative merit of capital punishment and life imprisonment. The banker put two million roubles and the lawyer staked fifteen years of his life for this “wild, senseless bet”. You can see that the banker was gloating in his power and his money at that time and had little hesitation in losing two million roubles. In fact, he was almost “delighted” with the bet. “The banker, spoilt and frivolous, with millions beyond his reckoning, was delighted at the bet.” But now, when the fifteen years are about to end, and there is every possibility of the lawyer winning the bet, the banker is in a quandary. “Desperate gambling on the Stock Exchange, wild speculation, and the excitability which he could not get over even in advancing years, had by degrees led to the decline of his fortune”, and the banker is in no position to lose two million now. He has become a slave to the overpowering greed of money and this has led to a decline of his essential humanity. The banker now will not deign to commit even murder to save himself from financial ruin. “The one means of being saved from bankruptcy and disgrace is the death of that man.” You can see the moral deterioration which the banker has gone through over the fifteen years.
The lawyer, on the other hand, was a frivolous young man of twenty-five at the time of waging the bet. He was supportive of life imprisonment, because according to him, “to live anyhow is better than not at all.” Also, as the banker feels, it was “on his part simple greed for money.” The lawyer spends his time in confinement reading a wide range of books, playing the piano, talking to himself and crying by turns. During the period of fifteen years spent in a zealous acquisition of knowledge, he has come to realise that money and material possessions are of no value whatsoever.
These are transitory things whose significance does not hold water in the long run. He has come to appreciate the spiritual bliss which no amount of material assets can offer. Therefore, he decided to renounce the two million to show his contempt for a world immersed in materialism. “To prove to you in action how I despise all that you live by, I renounce the two millions of which I once dreamed of as paradise and which I now despise.” He little realises that in escaping from his confinement, he has unwittingly saved his own life. So, you can see that the lawyer, in contrast to the banker, has gained in moral and spiritual wisdom over the course of fifteen years. No doubt, he lost the bet, but what he has achieved in lieu of two million roubles cannot be tagged with a price.
The banker, on reading the letter written by the lawyer, regretted his intention to kill the latter and felt a great condemnation for himself and his despicable thoughts. His two million roubles are safe, but he has little to celebrate for his win. You can see how Chekhov very precisely portrays the characters of the banker and the lawyer and lays bare their innermost thoughts. He shows both sympathy and realism towards his characters, who are very real and true- to- life. And this is what makes him one of the greatest writers of the world literature.
LET US KNOW
Raymond Carver, a short story writer in relation to Chekhov had said: “Chekhov’s stories are as wonderful (and necessary) now as when they first appeared. It is not only the immense number of stories he wrote- for few, if any, writers have ever done more- it is the awesome frequency with which he produced masterpieces, stories that shrive us as well as delight and move us, that lay bare our emotions in ways only true art can accomplish.”
STYLE AND LANGUAGE
Q. Write a short note on the techniques used by Anton Chekov in “The Bet”.
“The Bet” is a short story where the author speaks in the third person. But the thoughts of the main characters are in the first person. It must be noted that Chekhov had at first written stories for monetary gain, but later on, as his artistic faculties matured and his ambition grew, he started experimenting with various techniques which influenced the evolution of the modern short story. His originality consists in early use of the stream of consciousness technique which James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson and others adopted in their writings. Though the basic narrative technique is to use the authorial voice through third-person narrative, there are some moments in the story where workings of the banker’s mind are revealed through the technique of stream of consciousness.
In the story, you can sense the mental turmoil in the banker when he questions himself on the object of the bet. “What was the object of the bet? What is the good of that man’s losing fifteen years of life and my throwing away two million?” He realises the futility of the “nonsensical” bet. And it is again with revulsion that we perceive the perverted thoughts of the banker when he decides to murder the lawyer. In fact, he even went to the extent of blaming the watchmen for his own deed. “If I had the pluck to carry out my intention’, thought the old man, ‘suspicion would fall first upon the watchman.’”
Chekhov very beautifully reveals the atmosphere of the mind of the lawyer through the letter that he writes to the banker in which he gave up the two million roubles. The long letter charts his mental condition when he decides to renounce everything by which ordinary people live. Chekhov, in fact, poses a question to his readers in the sense that we are made to think for ourselves about the transience of material happiness. He believes that the role of an artist is to ask questions, and not to answer them. His use of language is direct and he gives no breathing space to the reader. You can feel yourself carried forward by the sheer virtuosity of his literary genius.
We may recall what Dmitry Grigorovich, a celebrated Russian writer of his day, once wrote to Chekhov. He wrote that Chekhov had real talent- a talent which placed him in the front rank among writers in the new generation. He also advised Chekhov to write less and concentrate more on literary quality, an advice which really inspired the young Chekhov. And you can today see how he has evolved into one of the greatest writers of the world. “The Bet” is one of the most memorable short stories in world literature, both for his technical excellence and richness of content. A fundamental truth of human life-triumph of spiritual values over materialistic fulfilment has been conveyed through a starkly simple story and use of vocabulary that makes it easy reading.
After going through this unit, you have gained an idea about the life and works of Anton Chekhov, the great Russian writer. He was a writer with a keen social conscience and his works are noted for their realistic portrayal of men and manners. In this unit, you have read his short story, “The Bet”, which is based on a bet laid between two persons- a banker and a lawyer, and the consequences which follow from it. The story upholds the message that material things do not matter in the long run, and how only spiritualism can lead to eternal bliss. The characters of the two protagonists are beautifully drawn and their emotional and mental upheavals are well delineated. The main theme of the story is that of renouncing material happiness. It is beautifully expressed through his narrative. Chekhov had a great influence on the generation of writers following him and he is indeed a rare genius who delights and instructs at the same time.
Q. What is the basis of the bet laid between the banker and the lawyer?
Ans. Whether death sentence or life imprisonment is immoral.
Q. How much money is at stake in the bet?
Ans. Two million.
Q. What happened in the first year of the prisoner’s confinement?
Ans. The first year of the lawyer’s confinement saw him suffering from “loneliness and depression”. Strains from his piano wafted from the lodge. He refused wine and tobacco and asked for “light” books.
Q. What did the banker think of murdering the lawyer?
Ans. Fear of bankruptcy, jealousy of the young lawyer and disgrace on losing bet.
Q. Write a short note on the techniques used by Anton Chekov in “The Bet”.
Ans. Refer to Style and Language above.
Q 12: According to the young lawyer, between the death penalty and imprisonment for life, he would choose the former. True/ False.