“The Bet” creates a situation in which a young lawyer, as part of a bet, is voluntarily imprisoned in solitary confinement for fifteen years. The bet itself is spurred by a debate about the nature of imprisonment: the lawyer believes that life is still worth living even when one is completely isolated, while the bet’s other party, the banker, holds that imprisonment, and the resultant loss of contact with the world, robs life of any value or meaning. The lawyer’s survival of the subsequent fifteen years initially seems to suggest that he is right—that a life of strictly regulated isolation is better than no life at all. Meanwhile, the banker flounders despite his freedom, losing both his fortune and moral compass during the fifteen years he engages with a world that the lawyer is denied. This, combined with the lawyer’s ultimate renunciation of all worldly society even after his imprisonment ends, raises the question as to whether anyone is ever actually free—or simply trapped in a prison of society’s making.
Throughout his solitary confinement the lawyer plays music, reads books on subjects across all realms of human knowledge, drinks wine, smokes cigarettes, and so on. The lawyer not only endures his imprisonment, but at times he even seems to thrive—much to the banker’s dismay, it becomes clear that the lawyer will win the bet. Imprisonment, the story seems to suggest, can’t snuff out a purposeful life, and perhaps that a life that lacks purpose, such as the banker’s, is the actual prison.
The final twist of the story changes this understanding completely, however. After the banker decides he must win the bet and sneaks into the prison-house to kill the lawyer, he finds the lawyer’s final letter. In the letter, the lawyer renounces the terms of the bet and gives up his winnings, on the grounds that he has come to realize during his imprisonment that everything he valued, and everything most people value—from money, to art, to wisdom, to love—is meaningless in the face of death, and that only heaven holds any worth.
Put another way, while earlier in the story it seemed possible to see the banker’s immoral life as a prison and the lawyer’s imprisoned life as free, what the lawyer here argues is that all life is a prison: that anything worldly that people pursue, whether immoral or noble, is a prison that blinds them to the truth of what matters (that is, heaven). The banker responds by feeling personal shame and sparing the lawyer’s life, but also by locking the lawyer’s letter away. This suggests that this prison, which holds all of humanity, is voluntary—any person could read the lawyer’s message and reject the prison of life, but instead nearly every person instead chooses to live an imprisoned life.
Imprisonment and Freedom ThemeTracker
Imprisonment and Freedom Quotes in The Bet
“I myself have experienced neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment, but if one may judge a priori, then in my opinion capital punishment is more moral and more humane than imprisonment. Execution kills instantly, life-imprisonment kills by degrees. Who is the more humane executioner, one who kills you in a few seconds or one who draws the life out of you incessantly, for years?"
"Capital punishment and life-imprisonment are equally immoral; but if I were offered the choice between them, I would certainly choose the second. It's better to live somehow than not to live at all."
“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."
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”