Anton Chekhov’s “The Bet” sets up a seemingly simple bet about the nature and value of life. The banker, who believes that the death penalty is more humane and moral than life imprisonment, argues that experiences, pleasures, and relationships are what make life worth living. A life spent imprisoned, according to him, is thus essentially not a life at all: it is instead a slow, constant death. In contrast, the young lawyer argues that “to live anyhow is better than not at all”—that being alive, in and of itself, is better than to die. Implied in the young lawyer’s argument is the belief that if one is physically alive, one can make life worth living regardless of its conditions. When the two men agree that if the lawyer can endure imprisonment for fifteen years then the banker will give him a large sum of money, it is these stakes that they believe the bet is about. Though the banker technically wins the bet, Chekhov ultimately leaves the answer to his initial question—that is, whether life has inherent value—ambiguous.
As the terms of the bet play out, the lawyer initially appears to be “winning.” He reads literature, philosophy, history, theology, and the Gospels. Certainly the young lawyer struggles—at times he is described as lying all day on his bed or talking angrily to himself—but there are also moments of genuine elation, such as when he describes his “unearthly happiness” at having learned numerous languages and therefore getting even more access to the accumulated thought of “the geniuses of all ages and of all lands.” What’s more, day by day, the lawyer lives out his fifteen years of imprisonment without ever trying to escape.
Meanwhile, the banker, who all this time has been free, is miserable. He spends recklessly on earthly pleasures and plays the stock market poorly, and the luck of his early life has fizzled by the time the fifteen-year mark approaches. His millions having dwindled, the money he’ll owe if he loses the bet might ruin him. As such, he takes steps to murder the lawyer in order to invalidate the bet. Though the banker had initially appeared to value life over rubles—telling the lawyer not to give up his best years for the promise of a later fortune—he changes his mind in the face of financial ruin.
Despite his complete isolation, the lawyer comes to understand the fleeting nature of pleasure that the banker has experienced first-hand in the outside world. In the letter that he writes on the final night of his imprisonment, the lawyer reveals all of the experiences and wisdom that he has gained through his reading during the prior fifteen years—and then declares all of it to be “worthless, fleeting, illusory, and deceptive, like a mirage” in the face of death. He claims that everything that humankind lives for on Earth—pleasure, love, knowledge, wisdom, everything—is worthless, and that only heaven holds value. To show this belief, the lawyer renounces the two million dollars he is owed and sneaks away hours before he is to be released.
What, then, to make of this ending? It seems that neither character—nor their original ideas about the meaning of life—have been entirely borne out. The banker’s belief in worldly pleasures and experience has led him to misery (and likely would have led him to murder, had he not discovered the lawyer’s plan to renounce the money). The lawyer, meanwhile, abandons his belief in one’s ability to make life worthwhile through engagement with the knowledge, art, and wisdom of humanity, and instead proclaims that only heaven has any meaning. That “The Bet” ends on such a note leaves a new debate in the hands of the reader to ponder: a debate not about what the meaning of life is, but whether life has meaning at all.
The Meaning of Life ThemeTracker
The Meaning of Life 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."
"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."
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.
“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.”