"The majority of the guests, among whom were many journalists and intellectual men, disapproved of the death penalty. They considered that form of punishment out of date, immoral, and unsuitable for Christian States."
This quote demonstrates the liberal slant of the guests at the party, as well as one of the themes of the story: the moral status of the death penalty. It succinctly sets up the main conflict of the story: whether it is better to die or live in forced isolation.
"The death sentence and the life sentence are equally immoral, but if I had to choose between the death penalty and imprisonment for life, I would certainly choose the second. To live anyhow is better than not at all."
The young lawyer gives his opinion on the debate of which is preferable: capital punishment or life imprisonment and he favors the latter. Note that he claims both are "equally immoral"; an open question to consider is whether he would still consider this to be the case at the end of the story. One could argue that he actually benefitted from his time in solitude, educated himself and thereby becoming wiser.
"It's not true! I bet you two millions you wouldn't stay in solitary confinement for five years."
Having heard the young lawyer's opinion that solitary confinement is preferable to the death penalty, the banker challenges him and puts the theoretical debate into practical terms with his bet.
"Don't forget either, you unhappy man, that voluntary confinement is a great deal harder to bear than compulsory. The thought that you have the right to step out in liberty at any moment will poison your whole existence in prison. I am sorry for you."
The banker taunts the young lawyer just after he accepts the bet, hoping to dissuade him, but also for the simple pleasure of mocking him. It's worth considering precisely what role the voluntary aspect of the lawyer's confinement actually played on his 15 years in solitude. It could be the case, for instance, that he was able to remain so disciplined in his reading because he was acting and living out every moment purely of his own volition. Note also that, despite the initial conversation about the immorality of imprisonment, that element is entirely absent from the bet because the lawyer is not being coerced into living in solitude.
"The agreement provided for every detail and every trifle that would make his imprisonment strictly solitary, and bound the young man to stay there exactly fifteen years, beginning from twelve o'clock of November 14, 1870, and ending at twelve o'clock of November 14, 1885."
The narrator recounts the exact conditions of the young lawyer's imprisonment. It's interesting to consider what sort of impact the imposition of strictly regimented rules for the imprisonment might have had on the lawyer: would his time in solitude have been easier or harder if he had simply stayed away from society of his own will, without a clearly defined set of rules to follow?
"He refused wine and tobacco. Wine, he wrote, excites the desires, and desires are the worst fears of the prisoner; and besides, nothing could be more dreary than drinking good wine and seeing no one."
The lawyer journals during his first year of imprisonment, and in this entry, we get a glimpse into his psyche and see how the confinement is taking its toll. Already in the first year, he is growing more distanced from material goods: he recognizes that the appeal of things like wine is lost without people with whom to share it.
"Then after the tenth year, the prisoner sat immovably at the table and read nothing but the Gospel. It seemed strange to the banker that a man who in four years had mastered six hundred learned volumes should waste nearly a year over one thin book easy of comprehension."
Here we see that the prisoner's motives and moves are beginning to become more opaque. He is not the same person he was before and he becomes a puzzle to normal people like the banker. This lends credibility to the lawyer's ultimate claim that other people are beneath the person he became in solitude: we see here that the banker genuinely is not capable of understanding him.
"His reading suggested a man swimming in the sea among the wreckage of his ship, and trying to save his life by greedily clutching first at one spar and then at another."
The banker makes this observation to himself as he watches the prisoner in the last year of his confinement. In the banker's eyes, the lawyer has taken on a desperate quality and seems almost crazy–though it's not clear whether we should believe this, since we saw that much earlier the banker already seemed incapable of understanding the lawyer.
"If I do pay him, it is all over with me: I shall be ruined."
The banker entertains this selfish thought the day before the prisoner is to go free. When he made the bet, he was a very wealthy man, and two million rubles was of little consequence to him. But with the passing of fifteen years, his money has dwindled and the two million are all he has left. When the lawyer goes free, the banker will thereby be sentenced to a life of poverty.
"To prove to you 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 now I despise. To deprive myself of the right to the money I shall go out from here five hours before the time fixed, and so break the compact..."
The lawyer, enlightened by all the reading he has done over the years, has decided to give up the money because he despises the material lifestyles of other people. His time alone has changed him forever, and he breaks the pact a trivial amount of time before its conclusion in order to demonstrate this.
The Bet Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Bet is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.