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 moral and humane than life imprisonment. While many, including the banker, assert that imprisonment is crueler because it kills by degrees rather than instantaneously, a young lawyer argues that life imprisonment is preferable because it is better to live somehow than not at all.
The banker challenges him to be imprisoned in a cell for five years, and, not to be outdone, the lawyer insists he could do it for fifteen. The wealthy banker stakes two million rubles in exchange for the lawyer’s freedom. The banker goads then the lawyer over dinner, telling him to back out while he still can, because three or four years of the lawyer’s life (surely, the banker assumes, he will not stick it out any longer than that) is more valuable than money that the banker can easily afford to lose. He also reminds the lawyer that voluntary imprisonment will be much harder psychologically than that which has been enforced.
The following evening, the lawyer is imprisoned in a garden wing of the banker’s house. He is forbidden to leave, to interact with anyone or even hear human voices, or to receive letters or newspapers. He is allowed to write letters, read books, play the piano, drink, and smoke. As the years go by, the lawyer negotiates different stages of coping with what is essentially solitary confinement. At first, he is terribly lonely and bored, playing the piano, rejecting wine and tobacco, and reading only novels “of a light character.” Then, in the second year of his imprisonment, he reads only classics. By the fifth year, he has stopped playing music and refuses to read. He writes letters but tears them up, often weeping, and often drinks and smokes. Next, he voraciously studies philosophy and languages, becoming an expert on several. Then he reads the New Testament, and, finally, in the last two years reads randomly, selecting everything from Shakespeare to the natural sciences.
The day before the lawyer is to be released, the banker is desperate–his fortunes have completely reversed, and he is now so deeply in debt that he cannot afford to pay the lawyer the two million rubles. The banker decides the only solution is to kill the lawyer. He sneaks out to the garden, where it is pouring rain, and deduces that the watchman is gone from his post because of the weather. He sneaks into the lawyer’s room and discovers the man asleep, completely emaciated and sickly thanks to his imprisonment, aged far beyond his forty years, and seeming like a “half-dead thing.”
The banker reads the note the lawyer has written and left on the table, which is a long treatise that declares how he despises “freedom, life, health and all that your books call the blessings of the world.” He has learned a staggering amount from all that he has read, and feels he has traveled all over the world, seen beautiful things, been with beautiful women, learned about the wonders of nature, and become immensely clever. He finds all of that meaningless, however, because it is temporary, and is bewildered by those whom he believes “have bartered heaven for earth.” As such, he renounces the two million rubles and declares that he will leave five hours early so as to lose the bet.
The banker begins to weep and kisses the sleeping lawyer on the head, wracked with contempt for himself. The next morning, the watchman informs him that the lawyer has escaped. The banker goes to the garden wing to confirm the departure. He takes the note “to avoid unnecessary rumors” and locks it in his safe.