Literature and Civilisation
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Literature and Civilisation


  1. The Bet is a short story written by Anton Chekov in the year 1889. This story is about a lawyer and a banker who make a bet with each other about whether the death penalty is better or worse than life in prison. The story has a twist ending.
  2. Chekhov became the father of the modern short story because of a key secret weapon. He wasn't just a writer, but in fact was also a full-time practicing doctor.
  3. Uh oh. It's a stalemate. So the two made a bet—if the lawyer can stand to be in voluntary solitary confinement for fifteen years, the banker will pay him two millions. A young lawyer argued the opposite—that any life is better than death, even if it means rotting in prison for decades. The banker argued that life in prison is just a very slow death, so it would be better to get the death penalty and get it over with. A rich banker is remembering a party he hosted fifteen years ago where a debate broke out about whether capital punishment or life imprisonment is the more moral punishment.
  4. First, he tackles languages and a bunch of things written in them. Then, the Bible. Then, a crazy mix of science, literature, and other seemingly random things. Soon, the fifteen years is almost up, because there's no better way to pass the time than reading a bunch of obscure books, At first, the lawyer seemed depressed, but soon began studying vigorously. The banker set him up in a guesthouse—the lawyer could get food, books, music, whatever he wanted except human communication of any sort.
  5. On the last night of the prison term, the banker sneaks into the guesthouse. The guards aren't there so he has no trouble slipping in. In the present, the banker realizes that if the lawyer wins, he won't be able to pay up the two million. He's lost his banking fortune, and if he has to shell out, he'll be totally bankrupt forever. The only thing to do? Kill the lawyer before the fifteen years ends.
  6. The setup is pretty much just the argument at the party—what's better, the death penalty or life imprisonment? There are many ways to think about this, of course, and the guests offer up some the possible questions. For example, which one's more moral for a government to do? Or, say, what would a person be more apt to tolerate? Or, which is less painful? Death or Isolation?
  7. Now that's a twist. Meanwhile, the banker loses his fortune and starts to freak out about coughing up the two million. Soon enough he decides to murder the lawyer (hello, bad idea). But just as he is about to do it, he finds a letter in which the lawyer says that he rejects the money— along with the rest of the material world.
  8. The longer the lawyer stays, the more it looks like he'll be the winner. He turns to really serious study— languages, religion, and science—and seems pretty okay in his makeshift prison. It's not like he's ever going to run out of books.
  9. The banker is relieved not to have to kill anyone. The prison warden later reports that the lawyer sneaked out of the guest house five hours before the fifteen years was up to forfeit the money, which gears us up for the quiet finale. No Murder Necessary.
  10. 16.  The banker takes the lawyer's letter, which proves that he rejected the money, and stashes it away in his safe. In case anyone comes asking questions later.
  11. There are two major characters featured in "The Bet": the lawyer and the banker, neither of which have official names in Chekhov's short story.
  12. The lawyer is seen to be persistent, intelligent and self-motivating. He does not break down in the 15 years of imprisonment as the banker foretold. He is intelligent by the virtue of reading so many books, which reflects in his eagerness to associate with other men, rather than claiming the final prize. The lawyer's character is very dynamic. He starts as a young, impatient person, ready to spend 15 best years of his life for 2 million. His imprisonment changes his life positively: he reads books, ponders over scriptures, learns languages and plays the piano. His character is reflected when he renounces the 2 million and settles with just having proved his point.
  13. The banker likes to be in a position of authority and 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 and later, his lack of wealth drives him to dishonesty and 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 as he plans on killing the lawyer. He plans on killing the lawyer for money and nothing but money changes his mind.
  14. The final twist in "The Bet" hinges on the idea that the lawyer took all the knowledge he could get from the many, many books he read in the prison, and turned it into wisdom.
  15. "The Bet" tests the convictions of a lawyer who claims that any kind of life is better than no life at all by subjecting him to fifteen years of subhuman existence, trapped in a house with nothing but books for company. Although physically comfortable, the lawyer is deprived of one of the standard markers of being human—being part of a community of other humans. As time goes by, the lawyer is slowly driven to reject the rest of his human existence as well.
  16. As soon as one of the party people argues that a government that can't restore human life shouldn't have the right to take it away, well, we know that the theme of sacrifice is going to be important in "The Bet." Sacrifice turns out to be the most plausible way for the banker to view the actions of the lawyer—and for the lawyer himself to describe his own reaction to his voluntary imprisonment.