The Bet

The Bet Literary Elements


Short Story

Setting and Context

A banker's house and lodge in Russia in 1885, with a flashback to 1870.

Narrator and Point of View

The story is written in the third person point-of-view, with limited omniscience into the mind of the banker. It is through the limited engagement inside the banker's head that we are given subjective entry into the mental state of the lawyer.

Tone and Mood

The tone of this story is matter-of-fact, presented with limited literary flourishes. The result is a mood lacking any sort of overriding emotional register that the reader can latch onto as a means of discovering keys to any secret meaning.

Protagonist and Antagonist

Protagonist: the lawyer. Antagonist: the banker.

Major Conflict

The Bet manages to sneak in a surprising number of conflicts within its short length.

The primary conflict driving the narrative is good, old-fashioned man-versus-man in the form of the competition of banker-versus-lawyer. The foundation supporting that heavy conflict is the more subtly drawn conflict between the different ways in which the banker and lawyer value human life.

Ultimately, the result of these conflicts is yet another: the lawyer in conflict against himself over what he really believes the value of a life is.

The banker is also conflicted as to whether he should kill the prisoner or not after he realizes that in setting the lawyer free, he will place himself in poverty.


The banker enters the prisoner's lodge with the intent to murder the lawyer. Just in time, he discovers a letter in which the lawyer announces his decision to renounce the world of material wealth and forfeit the bet that has ultimately driven the banker nearly to the point of homicide.


The entire beginning of the story foreshadows the end as a result of Chekhov kicking off the narrative with a flashback to the origin and stipulation of conditions of the bet. A second flashback revealing the conditions under which the lawyer has been living as a prisoner also acts to foreshadow the eventual climactic events.

"It was a dark autumn night. The old banker was walking up and down his study and remembering how, fifteen years before, he had given a party one autumn evening." (6).

"He is only forty now. He will take my last penny from me..." (12)

The latter foreshadows that this will not be the case, that there will be a twist at the end.


Everything about The Bet is an exercise in understatement.

Although the plot revolves around the highly contentious debate over the humanity of capital punishment (or the lack thereof), the story is surprisingly free of fiery didactic confrontations between opposing viewpoints.

A story of a fifteen-year-long, self-imposed imprisonment–when no crime has even been committed–features understated, dry, objective descriptions and dialogue utterly at odds with conventional expectations: "And now the banker, walking to and fro , remembered all this... Then he remembered what followed...." (8)


The lawyer passes the time in his imprisonment by requesting books in an attempt to fill time, as well as to take advantage of a unique opportunity to devote himself to acquiring knowledge. References to the books he's read make direct allusions to the writings of Byron and Shakespeare, the gospels of the New Testament, and the siren songs of ancient Greek myth.

"...and the prisoner asked only for the classics... Theology and histories of religion followed the Gospels... then he would ask for Byron or Shakespeare..." (10-11).


"Next morning the watchmen ran in with pale faces, and told him they had seen the man who lived in the lodge climb out of the window into the garden, go tot he gate, and disappear." (17)

This imagery in this sentence depicts how the lawyer escaped and the reaction of the guards. It brings the reader more fully into the story.

"I have heard the singing of the sirens, and the strains of the shepherds' pipes; I have touched the wings of comely devils who flew down to converse with me of God... In your books I have flung myself into the bottomless pit, performed miracles, slain, burned towns, preached new religions, conquered whole kingdoms..." (16)

This imagery lets the reader into the lawyer's mind. It allows us to better understand what he has been feeling for the past several years and why he has made a paradoxical choice.


Paradoxically, the very act of winning the bet (i.e. living in solitude for 15 years) led the lawyer to disavow the winnings of that very bet.

"For fifteen years I have been intently studying earthly life,,, Your book shave given me wisdom. All that the unresting thought of man has created in the ages is compressed into a small compass in my brain. I know that I am wiser than all of you. And I despise your books, I despise wisdom and the blessings of this world... To prove to your in action how i despise all that you live by, I renounce the two millions of which I once dreamed as of paradise and which I now despise." (15-17).


Chekhov engages parallelism more for thematic purpose than for sentence construction: the dramatic change in the banker's fortune parallels the dramatic change in the lawyer's attitudes towards the material world.

"To me two millions are a trifle, but you are losing three or four of the best years of your life." (8)

The banker says this in regards to his fortunes when he was still young.

However, when the time comes to pay his debt he says the following:

"Fifteen years before, his millions had been beyond his reckoning; now he was afraid to ask himself which were greater, his debts or his assets. Desperate gambling on the Stock Exchange, wild speculation and excitability which he could not get over even in advancing years, had by degrees led to the decline of his fortune and the proud, fearless, self-confident millionaire had become a banker of middling rank..." (12).

Metonymy and Synecdoche


"Beauties as ethereal as clouds..." (15)

In this instance, the lawyer uses the word beauties to convey multitudes of beautiful people who he has read about and loved.

"At no other time, even when he had lost heavily on the Stock Exchange..." (17)

Here we see the banker refer to the entire banking and stock industry by using the proper name of where they are traded.


"I have climbed to the peaks of Elburz and Mont Blanc..." (15)

This instance uses proper names of to signify that the lawyer has scaled many mountains


"Wine... excites the desires..." (9)

"Desires are the worst foes..." (9)

Both of these are personifications because neither wine not desires can actually take action, as one is an object and the other an intangible idea.