"The Bet" (Russian: "Пари", translit. Pari) is an 1889 short story by Anton Chekhov about a banker and a young lawyer who make a bet with each other about whether the death penalty is better or worse than life in prison.Publication
On 17 December 1888 Nikolai Khudekov asked Chekhov to write a story for Peterburgskaya Gazeta which he was an editor of. Chekhov came up with "The Cobbler and the Devil" (published on 25 December) and informed Alexey Suvorin of that. Suvorin, the Novoye Vremya's editor, took it almost as an insult, so Chekhov promised to produce a similar kind of fable for this newspaper before the New Year Eve. He started writing it on 22 December, and on the 30th sent the story by post.
Divided into three parts, it appeared in the 1 January 1889, No. 4613 issue of Novoye Vremya, titled "Fairytale" (Сказка). With a new title, "The Bet", revised and cut (part 3 of the original text now has gone) it was included into Volume 4 of Chekhov's Collected Works, published in 1899–1901 by Adolf Marks. "As I was reading the proofs, I came to dislike the end, it occurred to me that it was too cold and cruel," he explained the reason for the omission in 1903.Plot
As the story opens, the banker recalls the occasion of the bet fifteen years before. Guests at the 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, while the young lawyer disagreed, insisting that he would choose life in prison rather than death. They agree to a bet of two million rubles that the lawyer cannot spend fifteen years in solitary confinement. The bet was on, and the lawyer cast himself into isolation for fifteen years.
The man spends his time in confinement reading books, writing, playing piano, studying, drinking wine, and educating himself. We find him continuously growing throughout the story. We see various phases in his term of imprisonment over the years. At first, the lawyer suffered from severe loneliness and depression. But soon he began studying vigorously. He begins with languages and other related subjects. Then, a mix of science, literature, philosophy and other seemingly random subjects. 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 read immensely on chemistry, medicine and philosophy, and sometimes works of Byron or Shakespeare.
In the meantime, the banker's fortune declines and he realizes that if he loses, paying off the bet will leave him bankrupt.
The day before the fifteen-year period concludes, the banker resolves to kill the lawyer so as to not owe him the money. On his way to do so, however, the banker finds a note written by the lawyer. The note declares that in his time in confinement he has learned to despise material goods as fleeting things and he believes that knowledge is worth more than money. To this end he elects to renounce the reward of the bet. The banker was moved and shocked to his bones after reading the note, 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.Characters
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.
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. He starts as a young, impatient person, ready to spend 15 best years of his life for 2 million. 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.
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.References
- ^ Sokolova M.A. Commetaries to Сапожник и нечистая сила. // Чехов А. П. Полное собрание сочинений и писем в тридцати томах. Сочинения. Т. 7. — М.: Наука, 1977. С. 665.
- ^ Muratova, K. D. Commentaries to Пари. The Works by A.P. Chekhov in 12 volumes. Khudozhestvennaya Literatura. Moscow, 1960. Vol. 6, pp. 512
- ^ "The History of One Story". A.P. Chekhov's Unpublished Letter // Прохоров Г. История одного рассказа. Неопубликованное письмо А. П. Чехова. — «Литературная газета», № 88 от 14 июля 1934. - Когда я читал корректуру, мне этот конец очень не понравился […], показался не в меру холодным и суровым.
- Пари, the Russian text
- The Bet, 1915 and 1918 English translations
- The Project Gutenberg EBook of Best Russian Short Stories, including "The Bet"