BOOK TALK: THE BET by Anton Chekov



by Anton Chekov

Khidki (Window)

–Read India Initiative—

This is only an attempt to create interest in reading. We may not get the time to read all the books in our lifetime. But such reviews, talk and synopsis will at least convey what the book is all about

    Anton Chekov, was a Russian playwright and a short-story writer. He was considered to be the greatest, among the writers of short fiction in history. His career as a playwright produced four classics. His best short stories are held in high esteem by many renowned writers and even critics. Chekov all his life practiced as a medical doctor along with his illustrious literary career. ‘Medicine is my lawful wife,’ he once said, ‘and literature is my mistress.’

    ‘The Bet’ is an 1889 short story by him about a banker and a young lawyer who enter into a bet. To, decide what is better death penalty or life in prison.

    The story opens with the banker reminiscing the occasion, of the bet some fifteen years ago. The guests at that party that he was hosting that day fell into a discussion of capital punishment. The banker argued that capital punishment is more humane than life imprisonment. Where, the young lawyer disagreed. Insisting he would choose, life in prison rather than death. So, to, arrive at a conclusion. They agree to a bet of some two million roubles. Thinking the lawyer won’t be able to spend fifteen years in solitary confinement. Thus the bet was struck. When the lawyer cast’s himself into isolation, for fifteen years.

    The man spends his time in confinement reading books, writing, playing piano, studying, drinking wine and educating himself. One finds him growing intellectually throughout the story. We see various phases in his term of imprisonment over the years. At first, the lawyer suffers from serious loneliness and depression. But soon he begins vigorous studies. About languages and other related subjects. Then, he ventures into a mix of science, literature, philosophy and some other random subjects. Further, he ends up reading some six hundred volumes in the course of four years. Then the Gospel followed by theology and histories of religion. In the final two years, the imprisoned lawyer reads immensely subjects of chemistry, medicine and philosophy and at times works of Byron or Shakespeare.

     In the meantime the banker’s fortune declines. He all of a sudden realises that if he loses the bet, paying off the debt will leave him bankrupt.

    So, the day before, the fifteen-year period concludes. The banker resolves to kill the lawyer so that he doesn’t have to pay him the money. And on his way to do so, the banker finds a note written by the lawyer. The note only declares that during the time of his confinement. He has learned to despise material goods as fleeting things and he believes that knowledge is worth more than money. Therefore, he elects to renounce the reward of the bet. The banker is moved and shocked to his bones after reading the note. He kisses the strange man on the head and leaves the lodge weeping, relieved not to have to kill anyone. The prison warden later reports, that the lawyer has left the guest house. Thus losing the bet but proving his point that solitary confinement is more humane than death punishment as it gives a chance to a person (the lawyer in this story) to develop himself. The lawyer also unwittingly saves his own life by writing the note.


    The lawyer is seen to be persistent, intelligent and self motivating. He doesn’t break down in the 15 years of imprisonment as the banker had foretold. He is intelligent by the virtue of reading so many books, which reflects on his eagerness to associate with other men, rather than claiming the final prize. He starts as a young impatient person, ready to spend 15 of his best years of life for 2 million roubles. His character of being a person with no interest in materialistic luxury is reflected when he renounces the 2 million and settles with just having proved his point.

    Whereas, the banker likes to be in a position of authority. Where, he likes to wield power over others. Especially those, who happen to disagree with him. The character changes drastically from the beginning of the story when he seems to be very free handed as he easily bets to pay two million. But later, lack of wealth drives him to dishonesty and a plan for murder. This also signifies the weak character of the banker. He is very attached to the materialistic luxuries of life and values human life less than his luxuries. So he plans to kill the lawyer for money and nothing but money changes his mind.

By Kamlesh Tripathi



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