It is fifteen years later and the eve of the lawyer’s release. The banker is distraught because he cannot afford to pay the two million rubles. At the time he made the bet, he was exceedingly wealthy, but in the intervening years, gambling on the stock exchange, risky speculation, and recklessness destroyed his business.
Though free, the banker has also suffered in the intervening years. His reckless spending and pursuit of earthly pleasures has brought about his ruin, underscoring the corrupting nature of greed.
The old banker fears that the lawyer will, having won the bet, become wealthy, marry, and enjoy life the same way he had years ago, while the banker himself becomes a beggar. The banker concludes that the only solution is to kill the lawyer.
The banker’s vision of the lawyer as successful, wealthy, and wed, while he himself is a beggar, reveals how deeply he connects wealth with personal success. Though the banker previously proclaimed life more valuable than rubles—telling the lawyer not to give up his prime for a later fortune—he changes his mind in the face of financial ruin.
It is three o’clock in the morning and everyone is asleep. The wind howls and it is pouring rain. The banker sneaks out to the garden and calls for the watchman, but he gets no answer. He suspects the watchman has taken shelter from the bad weather and fallen asleep. The banker thinks to himself that the watchman will be the first one suspected of the crime, if he can bring himself to do it.
The banker’s plan to let the watchman take the blame for his crime further reflects how deeply corrupt he has grown over the past fifteen years. The world outside the lawyer’s cell is thus suggested to be full of temptation and greed. Freedom, Chekhov suggests, is no guarantee of a more moral—or perhaps meaningful—life.
The banker enters the hall and sees that the watchman is indeed missing. He taps on the lawyer’s window but the prisoner does not stir. He cautiously opens the door. The lawyer is revealed to be skeleton-like, with “tight-drawn skin,” a yellow color, and sunken cheeks. His is aged far beyond his forty years and so emaciated that the banker finds him painful to look at. There is a sheet of paper beside him. The banker thinks to himself how easy it would be to kill this “half-dead thing,” but he decides to read the paper first.
Imprisonment has resulted in the lawyer’s extreme physical deterioration, revealing the toll such isolation takes on human beings and suggesting the inhumanity of such a punishment. This deterioration is linked both to his physical isolation and the overabundance of knowledge that made him almost “know too much.”
The lawyer has written that he will receive his freedom the next day, and with it the “right to mix with people.” But before he leaves, he wants to say a few words to the banker. First of all, he hates freedom, life, health, and all the blessings of the world that he discovered in the books he read. The lawyer continues that he has studied “earthly life” for fifteen years, and despite never seeing any of it in person, he feels he has truly experienced everything he’s read about—that he drank the wine, sang the songs, hunted the animals, loved the beautiful women, and traveled the world. He has even done things that are impossible or unimaginable, like cast himself into abysses, worked miracles, burned cities to the ground, and conquered countries.
Whatever wisdom the lawyer has gained seems to have done him no favors. Instead, he emerges from his imprisonment a bitter, hateful man with no appreciation of those “blessings of the world” that make life worth living. This suggests a reversal of his previous argument of the inherent value of life. He further equates his “study of earthly life” with actual lived experience, insisting that his immersion onto the fantastical worlds of literature is as valid as anything the banker has actually lived through.
All the wisdom from the books, writes the lawyer, is condensed into a little lump in his skull. He has become cleverer than almost everyone, but he despises wisdom, blessings, and books because they are hollow and a mirage. Death will claim everything that is wise, proud, and beautiful, he writes. The lawyer asserts that everyone is mad and misguided. They take falsehood for truth and ugliness for beauty, and they do not understand what is truly beautiful and holy. They have traded the promise of heaven for a full but illusory life on earth, which he cannot and does not want to understand.
The lawyer declares all of the knowledge and pseudo-experience he has gained to be worthless, fleeting, and illusory in the face of death. His assertion of the transitory nature of earthly pleasures is illustrated by the banker’s current state of ruin, suggesting that the lawyer’s wisdom, however dismal, is not entirely incorrect, and that he has come to understand much of the world even when isolated from it. Both men, on either side of the prison cell, end up in a far darker place than where they started, adding to the story’s sense of ambiguity as to the inherent meaning of life.
The lawyer has come to hold people who appreciate earthly things in contempt, and as such he waives the two million rubles because this money, like everything else, is shallow and transient. He maintains the terms of the bet, though, by announcing that he will leave his cell five hours early so that the lawyer is legally absolved from paying him. There the letter ends.
Though the lawyer’s disdain for earthly things is supposed to connote a connection to heaven, he despises everything in a way that a true religious ascetic—one who rejects earthly pleasures in the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment—likely would not. He maintains the conventions and morality of the banker’s society, however, by not reneging on the bet or cheating.
The banker has begun to cry. He puts the letter down and kisses the lawyer on the head before leaving. He is full of contempt for himself, and he has trouble falling asleep because he is so agitated that he cannot stop crying.
The banker’s reasons for crying are never made precisely clear, though he likely feels guilty for his own corruption and his wicked scheme. The lawyer’s letter has perhaps caused him to acknowledge has far he has fallen, in a moral sense, over the past years. While he may be touched by the lawyer’s spiritual change, it is just as likely that he decides not to kill the lawyer because he believes that the lawyer will indeed renounce the money, and as such there is no point to his murder.
The next morning, the watchman comes running to the banker and says that the lawyer climbed through the window into the garden and escaped. The banker goes to the garden wing and establishes that he has indeed escaped. He takes the paper with the renunciation, just to “avoid unnecessary rumors,” and locks it in his safe.
Whatever guilt the banker felt has softened enough by the next morning that he is willing to hide the lawyer’s letter, which is a sort of religious gospel. Whatever wisdom the lawyer acquired will remain locked away—ironically making his grand assertion about the meaninglessness of life itself meaningless.