The Bet

by

Anton Chekhov

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Books Symbol Icon

The books that the lawyer reads symbolize his mental state and philosophical outlook, as his reading choices track his evolving views on the nature and value of human life. When he initially agrees to the bet, the lawyer is young and callow, and as such the first books he reads are “light,” selected to pass the time. He later asks for more substantial literature, which ultimately frustrates him to the point that he stops reading entirely. When he eventually returns to reading, he focuses on philosophy, history, languages, and, finally, the Bible. Although he becomes learned over his fifteen years in captivity, he never acquires actual lived experience, and in a way, he remains just as naïve and innocent of the ways of the world as he was in the beginning of the story, still willing to speak authoritatively about things of which he has no experience (which is what got him into the bet in the first place). In a way, then, he has learned nothing. He claims to be “cleverer than [them] all” by the end, and he surely has acquired wisdom, but the books represent a naïve understanding of the world that is devoid of wisdom gained through experience.

Books Quotes in The Bet

The The Bet quotes below all refer to the symbol of Books. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Meaning of Life Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Green Bird edition of The Bet published in 2017.
Part 1 Quotes

During the last two years of his confinement the prisoner read an extraordinary amount, quite haphazard. Now he would apply himself to the natural sciences, then he would read Byron or Shakespeare … He read 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.

Related Characters: The Lawyer
Related Symbols: Books
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2 Quotes

“To-morrow at twelve o'clock midnight, I shall obtain my freedom and the right to mix with people. But… [o]n my own clear conscience and before God who sees me I declare to you that I despise freedom, life, health, and all that your books call the blessings of the world.”

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker)
Related Symbols: Books
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:
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Books Symbol Timeline in The Bet

The timeline below shows where the symbol Books appears in The Bet. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1
The Meaning of Life Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
The Meaning of Life Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
The Meaning of Life Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom Theme Icon
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,... (full context)
The Meaning of Life Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Part 2
The Meaning of Life Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
The Meaning of Life Theme Icon
Greed, Corruption, and Idealism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
All the wisdom from the books, writes the lawyer, is condensed into a little lump in his skull. He has become... (full context)