On a dark autumn night, the banker paces in his study and recalls a party he hosted fifteen years before. In a flashback, he and several of his guests, many of whom are journalists and scholars, discuss whether capital punishment is more humane than life imprisonment. Most guests disapprove of capital punishment, claiming it is obsolete and immoral under a Christian state and should be replaced by life imprisonment.
The question of life imprisonment vs. capital punishment is really a question of morality and mercy, and one that further depends on one’s interpretation of the inherent value of life. Chekhov’s mention of a Christian state adds a religious element to the story and foreshadows the lawyer’s ultimate, near-Christlike renunciation of earthly goods and pleasures.
The banker disagrees, suggesting that capital punishment is in its way more moral than life imprisonment because it kills instantaneously instead of by degrees, which is more humane. An unnamed guest remarks that they are both equally immoral, because the State does not have the right to take away that which it cannot give back. A young lawyer then speaks up, agreeing that both punishments are equally immoral but adding that he would prefer life imprisonment because “it’s better to live somehow than not to live at all.”
The banker presents an opposing argument that suggests a certain morality to the death penalty. The lawyer, meanwhile, insists on death as the ultimate punishment. The answer to the debate again rests on whether one believes that life is inherently valuable, or if meaning is gleaned only through engagement with the world—and, as such, meaningless within the confines of life imprisonment.
The banker loses his temper, bangs his fist on the table, and makes a bet with the lawyer for two million rubles that he couldn’t stay in a cell for five years. The lawyer, equally roused, raises the stakes to fifteen years. The bet is solidified in front of numerous witnesses.
Both the banker and the lawyer prove themselves haughty and inexperienced, so eager to prove their own points that they raise the stakes of the bet to the point of absurdity. This lends the story a fable-like quality (Chekhov in fact originally titled it “Fairytale”).
The banker further goads the lawyer over dinner, telling him to back out before it is too late. He points out that the lawyer would be losing “three or four of the best years of [his] life,” though no more because he would surely not be able to stay any longer than that. He also reminds the lawyer that voluntary rather than enforced imprisonment is much harder psychologically.
The banker values years of life over money at this point in the story; of course, as an already wealthy man, he does not yet understand the allure of money for someone in poverty. The lawyer, meanwhile, agrees to give up years of life with the promise of later fortune. Both instances suggest the corrupting nature of money.
Back in the present, the banker bemoans his decision to make this bet, because nothing has been gained: the lawyer has lost fifteen years of his life, it looks like the banker will lose two million rubles, and no one will have gained any knowledge as to whether capital punishment or life imprisonment is preferable.
Fifteen years previously, the lawyer is put under strict observation in a garden wing of the banker’s house. He is forbidden to leave, to interact with anyone or hear human voices, or to receive letters or newspapers. He is allowed to write letters, read books, play the piano, drink wine, and smoke tobacco. He can also send notes through a little window, asking for things like books or wines. Any attempt to escape means the banker will not have to pay the two million rubles.
The terms laid out for the lawyer during his imprisonment dictate how he will live for the next fifteen years, limiting his access to the parts of life that, for most people, make living worthwhile. Such restrictive rules set the stage for the story’s meditation on whether life has meaning without earthly pleasures or human interaction.
At first, the lawyer struggles to adjust to the loneliness and boredom of his captivity. He plays piano all day and night, reads books “of a light character” to pass the time, and rejects wine and tobacco, fearing the former would excite desires he cannot fulfill while the latter would spoil the air in his room.
The dismissive description of the lawyer’s initial reading list as being “of a light character” suggests that such books are a waste of time, in contrast with the lawyer’s later pursuit of wisdom and knowledge. The lawyer’s renunciation of pleasurable things like wine, meanwhile, suggests the danger of temptation, or desiring what one does not have—ironically, exactly what the lawyer has done in his pursuit of future riches.
In the second year, the lawyer stops playing piano and starts reading classic books. By the fifth year, he is playing music again and asking for wine. That year, he often simply lays around. He does not read, and though he writes occasionally he tears it up and often weeps.
The lawyer remains miserable and unfulfilled, weeping and resorting to the alcohol he previously denied himself—underscoring the toll imprisonment is taking on his psyche and calling into question his initial assertion of the inherent value of life.
In the sixth year, the lawyer begins to zealously study languages, philosophy, and history, reading more books than can easily be brought to him. He writes a letter to the banker in six languages and expresses joy at being able to understand the geniuses of the world. In the letter, he also asks the banker to fire a gun in the garden if there are no mistakes found in his translations, which the banker does.
The lawyer finds moments of happiness as he devotes himself to acquiring knowledge about the from which world he has been separated. The learning of languages in particular suggests a desire to engage with the world beyond his cell, yet he has no one to speak with.
In the tenth year, the lawyer reads only the New Testament. In the next two years, he reads haphazardly and randomly, focusing on anything from the natural sciences to Byron and Shakespeare. He reads almost desperately, as though “he were swimming in the sea among broken pieces of wreckage, and in his desire to save his life was eagerly grasping one piece after another.”
The suggestion that the lawyer is “at sea” and attempting to save his own life indicates that he is at his wits’ end, having been isolated for so long. He searches for meaning in religion, though his subsequent focus on seemingly random works suggest an inability to find what he is looking for.