However ambiguous “The Bet” may be regarding the ultimate meaning of life, it is clear in its rejection of material wealth. The lawyer is willing to give up his freedom and remain in solitary confinement for two million rubles, while the wealthy banker throws his wealth around haphazardly to manipulate the banker into a cruel bet and later participates in financial recklessness that almost ruins him, leaving him willing to do anything—including murder—to maintain his status. While the banker is more profoundly affected by wealth than the lawyer (who ultimately renounces the money the banker owes him from the bet), Chekhov is suggesting that money and wealth are inherently corrupting influences.
In the immediate aftermath of the bet, Chekhov states: “The banker, spoilt and frivolous, with millions beyond his reckoning, was delighted at the bet.” The money leveraged clearly means very little to the banker because he has so much to spare. The story suggests, then, that what seems like the banker’s attempt to assert a moral conviction is actually just a stance he takes for his own enjoyment—and it is specifically his wealth that allows him such reckless frivolity. Fifteen years later, the banker seems to acknowledge as much, calling the bet “the caprice of a pampered man” and rejecting its ability to add genuine insight into the debate that spurred it: “What is the good of that man's losing fifteen years of his life and my throwing away two million?” he asks himself. “Can it prove that the death penalty is better or worse than imprisonment for life? No, no. It was all nonsensical and meaningless.”
Even as excess wealth in the story engenders irresponsible and capricious behavior, the desire for more money breeds inarguable moral decay. The banker’s “desperate gambling on the Stock Exchange” and “wild speculation” ultimately lead “to the decline of his fortune,” transforming the “the proud, fearless, self-confident millionaire” into “a banker of middling rank, trembling at every rise and fall in his investments.” With the lawyer poised to win the bet, the banker fears being pushed into the life of an envious beggar. The idea of no longer being rich is so offensive to the banker that he decides the only solution is to kill the lawyer. Any respect he earlier professed for the sanctity of life has been subsumed by his greed.
The banker’s corruption also makes him see those around him as corrupt, too. For example, as the banker admits to his own lack of ideals in making the bet, he also assumes that the lawyer similarly made the best out of “simple greed for money.” Of course, the story never actually makes clear whether the lawyer made the bet out of true idealism or because, as the banker believes, he just wanted the two million. Regardless, the lawyer proves profoundly hostile toward money by the story’s end. In his final letter, revealed when the banker sneaks into his prison to murder him, the lawyer renounces the money as part of proclaiming the worthlessness of all worldly things. Wealth, in his mind, is utterly incompatible with moral authority.
After reading the letter, the banker’s reaction, in which he kisses the lawyer on the head, does not kill him, and then feels such contempt for himself that he can’t sleep, shows the power of such true ideals. That the lawyer’s letter has thrust the banker’s corruption into such stark relief, suggests that, just as greed and wealth invariably corrupt, idealism and ascetism heal. And yet the story doesn’t end there: the lawyer then sneaks off and disappears, and the banker puts the letter into his safe so that no one will ever see it. The story, then, shows both the power of true idealism and seems to suggest that such idealism can’t actually find a way to exist in the real world, dictated as it so often is by monetary concerns and an association of success with financial well-being. Those who feel true idealism, like the lawyer, feel the need to remove themselves from society. And those who experience idealism in others may be briefly affected by it, but they soon hide that away in the face of other more pragmatic, more corrupt concerns.
Greed, Corruption, and Idealism ThemeTracker
Greed, Corruption, and Idealism Quotes in The Bet
"Why did I make this bet? What's the good? The lawyer loses fifteen years of his life and I throw away two million. Will it convince people that capital punishment is worse or better than imprisonment for life? No, no! all stuff and rubbish. On my part, it was the caprice of a well-fed man; on the lawyer's pure greed of gold."
“He will take away my last farthing, marry, enjoy life, gamble on the Exchange, and I will look on like an envious beggar and hear the same words from him every day: 'I'm obliged to you for the happiness of my life. Let me help you.' No, it's too much! The only escape from bankruptcy and disgrace—is that the man should die."
“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.”
"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.”
“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…”