The Bet


Anton Chekhov

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Themes and Colors
The Meaning of Life Theme Icon
Greed, Corruption, and Idealism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Bet, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Christianity Theme Icon

The initial debate between the banker and the lawyer about the death penalty is explicitly grounded in Christian morality. In fact, everyone at the banker’s party is presented as having the same general view of the death penalty: “They considered that form of punishment out of date, immoral, and unsuitable for Christian States.” Though the story doesn’t much mention religion again, a closer look at the ending reveals that the “The Bet” has a deeper interaction with Christianity than might first appear. For one thing, when the banker sees the lawyer for the first time in fifteen years, Chekhov describes the lawyer as Christlike in ways both general (“a man unlike ordinary people”) and specific (“with long curls,” a “shaggy beard,” “his back long and narrow,” and so on). Second, the lawyer’s final letter reveals his ultimate rejection of all earthly things—not simply the money he is owed from the bet, but also love, art, knowledge, and wisdom, all of which, he says, are like dust in comparison to heaven. The lawyer thus emerges from fifteen years of imprisonment with a radical religious message that is, in fact, not that different from radical interpretations of Christ’s message about the relative merits of this world and the next.

Of course, that is not the end of the story’s exploration of Christianity. Although the banker has decided to kill the lawyer to avoid losing the bet, he is moved by the lawyer’s message and he feels contempt for himself. He’s not moved enough to truly respect the lawyer’s teachings, however: when the lawyer sneaks away in the night and disappears, the banker locks the lawyer letter explaining his newfound wisdom in the safe to avoid “unnecessary talk.” The wicked banker, in other words fails to spread the lawyer’s message, while the lawyer himself, now a radical prophet, also disappears, taking his gospel with him.

It's important to note that, though the lawyer reflects a certain religious asceticism (that is, the abstention from pleasure in the pursuit of spirituality), he also proves pessimistic and self-serving. The lawyer is plagued by hatred and derision towards regular people who engage with earthly life. He claims that earthly things, even natural beauty and hard-earned wisdom, are all irrelevant, silly, and false because of their ephemeral nature. For all of his reading and moralizing, he fails to embody the kindness and love that Christ preached. His dismissal of “all worldly blessings and wisdom,” as well as his physically decrepit nature, indicate a perversion of religious enlightenment.

The story, then, seems to suggest that the original debate about Christian morals among the well-off intellectuals at the party was a kind of sham, a conversation among people who haven’t truly devoted themselves to the morals they purport to respect above all others. This is made even clearer by their belief in the merits of intellectualism and their enjoyment of their status and money (all of which the lawyer renounces when he becomes a Christ figure). And with the lawyer’s disappearance into the night, and the disappearance of his message into the banker’s safe, the story suggests that it will always be this way: that the radical messages of religion, and Christianity in particular, will never truly come to hold sway in the world, but rather will always end up obscured and co-opted by society.

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Christianity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Christianity appears in each part of The Bet. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Christianity Quotes in The Bet

Below you will find the important quotes in The Bet related to the theme of Christianity.
Part 2 Quotes

“Before the table sat a man, unlike an ordinary human being. It was a skeleton, with tight-drawn skin, with long curly hair like a woman's, and a shaggy beard. The color of his face was yellow, of an earthy shade; the cheeks were sunken, the back long and narrow, and the hand upon which he leaned his hairy head was so lean and skinny that it was painful to look upon. His hair was already silvering with grey, and no one who glanced at the senile emaciation of the face would have believed that he was only forty years old.”

Related Characters: The Banker, The Lawyer
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

"Everything is void, frail, visionary and delusive as a mirage. Though you be proud and wise and beautiful, yet will death wipe you from the face of the earth … You are mad, and gone the wrong way. You take falsehood for truth and ugliness for beauty... So do I marvel at you, who have bartered heaven for earth. I do not want to understand you.”

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker), The Banker
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

“When he had read, the banker put the sheet on the table, kissed the head of the strange man, and began to weep … Never at any other time, not even after his terrible losses on the Exchange, had he felt such contempt for himself as now. Coming home, he lay down on his bed, but agitation and tears kept him a long time from sleeping…”

Related Characters: The Banker, The Lawyer
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

“The banker instantly went with his servants to the wing and established the escape of his prisoner. To avoid unnecessary rumors he took the paper with the renunciation from the table and, on his return, locked it in his safe.”

Related Characters: The Banker, The Lawyer
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis: