The Bet by Anton Chekhov … Explanation
The Bet by Anton Chekhov
— with questions and answers
It was a dark autumn night. The old banker was walking up and down his study and remembering how, fifteen years before, he had given a party one autumn evening. There had been many clever men there, and there had been interesting conversations.
Explanation .. Lost in his reminiscence in a dark autumn night, the old banker sauntered around his study. He recounted how fifteen years ago, just around this time of the year, some very intelligent people had congregated in his hall. A lively conversation had followed.
Among other things they had talked of capital punishment. The majority of the guests, among whom were many journalists and intellectual men, disapproved of the death penalty. They considered that form of punishment out of date, immoral, and unsuitable for Christian States. In the opinion of some of them the death penalty ought to be replaced everywhere by imprisonment for life. “I don’t agree with you,” said their host the banker. “I have not tried either the death penalty or imprisonment for life, but if one may judge a priori, the death penalty is more moral and more humane than imprisonment for life. Capital punishment kills a man at once, but lifelong imprisonment kills him slowly. Which executioner is the more humane, he who kills you in a few minutes or he who drags the life out of you in the course of many years?”
Explanation … They were discussing the desirability and morality of sending a sinner to the gallows. Some of the bright minds in the party supported the idea behind this punishment, although it is possibly the harshest that an accused could get. Some other guests opposed capital punishment as primitive, cruel, and immoral. It was against the tenets of Christianity, they said. So, states swearing by Christian values must take a fellow human being’s life, notwithstanding the fact that the convict could have committed the gravest and vilest of crimes. Instead of executing an accused, he should be put behind bars for his life.
The host, a shrewd and rich banker, proffered his own views. He said putting a sinner to quick death was far more desirable than incarcerating him till his death. It was like inflicting a thousand cuts to his body when he has no way to resist. ‘Robbing a person of his freedom for lifelong was possibly the cruelest act, unbecoming of a conscientious judge who awards the sentence,’ said the banker after some reflection. To bolster his stand, he argued that death in the hands of the executioner comes rather quickly, and much less painfully.
“Both are equally immoral,” observed one of the guests, “for they both have the same object – to take away life. The State is not God. It has not the right to take away what it cannot restore when it wants to.”
Among the guests was a young lawyer, a young man of five-and-twenty. When he was asked his opinion, he said:
“The death sentence and the life sentence are equally immoral, but if I had to choose between the death penalty and imprisonment for life, I would certainly choose the second. To live anyhow is better than not at all.”
A lively discussion arose. The banker, who was younger and more nervous in those days, was suddenly carried away by excitement; he struck the table with his fist and shouted at the young man:
“It’s not true! I’ll bet you two million you wouldn’t stay in solitary confinement for five years.”
“If you mean that in earnest,” said the young man, “I’ll take the bet, but I would stay not five but fifteen years.”
Explanation …… Another guest had a radically different view. He disapproved of both capital punishment and life imprisonment. He observed that both types of punishments lead to death – one quickly, the other death excruciatingly slowly. He felt, the State did not have the power to create life, so can’t destroy anyone’s life.
A lawyer in his mid twenties came forward with his own counsel. He felt both life imprisonment and capital punishment to be equally abhorrent. However, if he ever committed a vicious crime of the most serious nature warranting the severest punishment, he would opt for life imprisonment rather than being dragged to the gallows. In his view, staying alive is a far better option than meeting death prematurely.
The pugnacious lawyer had triggered a flurry of arguments with everyone trying to jump into the fray. The banker, a little younger than most and less sagacious, couldn’t resist the temptation to throw in his hat.
In a feat of apparent indiscretion, the lawyer said he would pay anyone two million if he remained in solitary confinement for just five years.
A young man from among the guests threw a counter challenge. He said he would stay as a total recluse not for five, but for fifteen years for the two million reward.
“Fifteen? Done!” cried the banker. “Gentlemen, I stake two million!”
“Agreed! You stake your millions and I stake my freedom!” said the young man.
And this wild, senseless bet was carried out! The banker, spoilt and frivolous, with millions beyond his reckoning, was delighted at the bet. At supper he made fun of the young man, and said:
“Think better of it, young man, while there is still time. To me two million is a trifle, but you are losing three or four of the best years of your life. I say three or four, because you won’t stay longer. Don’t forget either, you unhappy man, that voluntary confinement is a great deal harder to bear than compulsory. The thought that you have the right to step out in liberty at any moment will poison your whole existence in prison. I am sorry for you.”
And now the banker, walking to and fro, remembered all this, and asked himself: “What was the object of that bet? What is the good of that man’s losing fifteen years of his life and my throwing away two million? Can it prove that the death penalty is better or worse than imprisonment for life? No, no. It was all nonsensical and meaningless. On my part it was the caprice of a pampered man, and on his part simple greed for money …”
Then he remembered what followed that evening. It was decided that the young man should spend the years of his captivity under the strictest supervision in one of the lodges in the banker’s garden. It was agreed that for fifteen years he should not be free to cross the threshold of the lodge, to see human beings, to hear the human voice, or to receive letters and newspapers. He was allowed to have a musical instrument and books, and was allowed to write letters, to drink wine, and to smoke. By the terms of the agreement, the only relations he could have with the outer world were by a little window made purposely for that object. He might have anything he wanted – books, music, wine, and so on – in any quantity he desired by writing an order, but could only receive them through the window. The agreement provided for every detail and every trifle that would make his imprisonment strictly solitary, and bound the young man to stay there exactly fifteen years, beginning from twelve o’clock of November 14, 1870, and ending at twelve o’clock of November 14, 1885. The slightest attempt on his part to break the conditions, if only two minutes before the end, released the banker from the obligation to pay him the two million.
Explanation … When the young man said he was ready to be cut off from the outside world for fifteen long years, the garrulous banker sieged the offer and declared that he was staking two million for the bet.
The young man was not a bit ruffled. He accepted the challenge sportingly.
The banker had a huge pile of cash. Two million was a trifle for him during those days. He pitied the young man for his apparent foolhardiness in agreeing to forsake his freedom for fifteen years for two million. He asked the young man to weigh the suffering and pain of self-imposed isolation. He would waste away during the confinement and his life would end in three to four years, warned the banker. Killing the urge to step out of the isolation cell would be too hard to resist. It could wreck him physically and mentally. With these warnings, the banker tried to dissuade the young man from taking such a great risk.
In a short while, the banker himself was lost in thoughts. He began to wonder if he had fallen prey to his own indiscretion and whim. Was losing two million to induce another young man to lose fifteen years of his precious life in an isolated prison not injudicious, he began to worry.
The discussion was to determine whether capital punishment or life sentence was a more preferred option. Now, the outcome of the argumentation was totally different. An innocent man was going to lose fifteen years of his life, and he stood to lose two million. The flurry of verbal exchanges had resulted in totally unintended consequences. The thought rattled the banker.
Memories of the evening party rushed through the banker’s mind. The young man had glibly agreed to the severest terms of his incarceration. Other than access to books, and pen and paper, the man could have zero contact with the outside world. He would get just one meal a day, to be delivered to him through a window. In short, it was going to be torturous to the extreme. He would be holed up in a lodge in the banker’s garden with round-the-clock vigil by the banker’s guards. He would be allowed to write letters, drink wine and smoke, though. The comprehensive agreement was drawn up. The solitary confinement was to begin from twelve o’clock of November 14, 1870, and end at twelve o’clock of November 14, 1885.
Even the slightest violation of the agreed terms would instantly absolve the banker of the obligation to pay the two million bet to the young man.
For the first year of his confinement, as far as one could judge from his brief notes, the prisoner suffered severely from loneliness and depression. The sounds of the piano could be heard continually day and night from his lodge. He refused wine and tobacco. Wine, he wrote, excites the desires, and desires are the worst foes of the prisoner; and besides, nothing could be more dreary than drinking good wine and seeing no one. And tobacco spoilt the air of his room. In the first year the books he sent for were principally of a light character; novels with a complicated love plot, sensational and fantastic stories, and so on.
Explanation … Solitary confinement took a heavy toll of the young man’s health and vigour in the first five years. It drove him to the edge of depression. He played the piano to keep him to stave off the misery of his reclusive existence. He denied himself the luxury of wine and tobacco. For him, wine triggered yearning for companionship, so he abstained from it. Tobacco smoke hung in the air of his sealed room. It choked his breathing. In the first year, he relished reading books with light and entertaining content.
In the second year the piano was silent in the lodge, and the prisoner asked only for the classics. In the fifth year music was audible again, and the prisoner asked for wine. Those who watched him through the window said that all that year he spent doing nothing but eating and drinking and lying on his bed, frequently yawning and angrily talking to himself. He did not read books. Sometimes at night he would sit down to write; he would spend hours writing, and in the morning tear up all that he had written. More than once he could be heard crying.
Explanation …. As he stepped into the second year of his voluntary captivity, he stopped playing the piano. He began reading classics – books of deep literary value. In the fifth year, he took to music again. He demanded and got his wine. The guards peeped through the window and found him doing nothing except eating, drinking wine and lying on bed. He would erupt into angry monologues at times. He stopped reading books. At times during the night, he would sit down on his bed to write something. But, in the morning, he would tear up all that he wrote at night. He would cry.
In the second half of the sixth year the prisoner began zealously studying languages, philosophy, and history. He threw himself eagerly into these studies – so much so that the banker had enough to do to get him the books he ordered. In the course of four years some six hundred volumes were procured at his request. It was during this period that the banker received the following letter from his prisoner:
“My dear Jailer, I write you these lines in six languages. Show them to people who know the languages. Let them read them. If they find not one mistake I implore you to fire a shot in the garden. That shot will show me that my efforts have not been thrown away. The geniuses of all ages and of all lands speak different languages, but the same flame burns in them all. Oh, if you only knew what unearthly happiness my soul feels now from being able to understand them!” The prisoner’s desire was fulfilled. The banker ordered two shots to be fired in the garden.
Explanation .. The lone prisoner plunged himself in the study of languages, philosophy and history. He ordered many books on these subjects as he voraciously read the books at his disposal. The banker, bound by his pledge, was never found wanting in his job of fetching the treatises. In four years, some six hundred volumes were procured for the scholar-prisoner.
A letter from the prisoner really took the banker by surprise. The missive was penned in six different languages. The writer had thrown a challenge at the banker. If a single mistake was spotted in any of the six letters, the banker was asked to fire a shot from his gun from inside the garden. The prisoner said he was experiencing immense sense of satisfaction from mastering so many languages – a feat that has been the hallmark of eminent intellectuals in all ages.
The banker had the letters scrutinized, and could spot just two mistakes. As required by the prisoner, he had two shots fired from his garden.
Then after the tenth year, the prisoner sat immovably at the table and read nothing but the Gospel. It seemed strange to the banker that a man who in four years had mastered six hundred learned volumes should waste nearly a year over one thin book easy of comprehension. Theology and histories of religion followed the Gospels.
In the last two years of his confinement the prisoner read an immense quantity of books quite indiscriminately. At one time he was busy with the natural sciences, then he would ask for Byron or Shakespeare. There were notes in which he demanded at the same time books on chemistry, and a manual of medicine, and a novel, and some treatise on philosophy or theology. His reading suggested a man swimming in the sea among the wreckage of his ship, and trying to save his life by greedily clutching first at one spar and then at another.
The old banker remembered all this, and thought:
“To-morrow at twelve o’clock he will regain his freedom. By our agreement I ought to pay him two million. If I do pay him, it is all over with me: I shall be utterly ruined.”
Explanation …. Years of the voluntary captivity went by. Ashe entered the eleventh year, the prisoner’s interest in all branches of human knowledge dwindled to near zero. He took to spiritualism, and began to read the Gospel. Much to the surprise of the banker the voracious reader delved in to the thin volume of the Gospel. All his enthusiasm to read and read had deserted him.
After finishing the Gospel, the prisoner began his intellectual quest to Theology and History of religions.
Ashe stepped into the last two years of self-imposed incarceration, he began to read randomly. From Natural Sciences to the study of Byron and Shakespeare he busied himself in picking up nuggets of reading pleasure from whatever books came his way.
The last day of the captivity was tantalizingly near. The banker, bent by age and greatly diminished in wealth by then, began to ponder the matter. The prisoner would walk out at 12 noon the next day. He would walk out free richer by two million and the banker’s kitty would take a hit of the like amount. He was already in hard times, and this pay-out would almost cripple him. The banker was lost in thoughts.
Fifteen years before, his millions had been beyond his reckoning; now he was afraid to ask himself which were greater, his debts or his assets. Desperate gambling on the Stock Exchange, wild speculation and the excitability which he could not get over even in advancing years, had by degrees led to the decline of his fortune and the proud, fearless, self-confident millionaire had become a banker of middling rank, trembling at every rise and fall in his investments. “Cursed bet!” muttered the old man, clutching his head in despair “Why didn’t the man die? He is only forty now. He will take my last penny from me, he will marry, will enjoy life, will gamble on the Exchange; while I shall look at him with envy like a beggar, and hear from him every day the same sentence: ‘I am indebted to you for the happiness of my life, let me help you!’ No, it is too much! The one means of being saved from bankruptcy and disgrace is the death of that man!”
Explanation … The banker had squandered a major part of his wealth in reckless gambling, betting wildly on the bourses, and similar misadventures. His swagger, clout, and arrogance had ceded place to despondency, remorse, worries, and lack of self-confidence.
He began to think mean, wondering why the man survived the ordeal to claim the two million. He was just about 40, an age in which he could marry and look forward to a happy life. The old banker, would lose two million, an amount that appeared so trifling some years back, but meant a lot to him, in the hard times he had fallen in. He concluded that redeeming his pledge to give two million would almost spell his ruin. An unknown fear gripped him. He mulled over ways to preempt this calamity.
It struck three o’clock, the banker listened; everyone was asleep in the house and nothing could be heard outside but the rustling of the chilled trees. Trying to make no noise, he took from a fireproof safe the key of the door which had not been opened for fifteen years, put on his overcoat, and went out of the house.
It was dark and cold in the garden. Rain was falling. A damp cutting wind was racing about the garden, howling and giving the trees no rest. The banker strained his eyes, but could see neither the earth nor the white statues, nor the lodge, nor the trees. Going to the spot where the lodge stood, he twice called the watchman. No answer followed. Evidently the watchman had sought shelter from the weather, and was now asleep somewhere either in the kitchen or in the greenhouse.
“If I had the pluck to carry out my intention,” thought the old man, “Suspicion would fall first upon the watchman.”
He felt in the darkness for the steps and the door, and went into the entry of the lodge. Then he groped his way into a little passage and lighted a match. There was not a soul there. There was a bedstead with no bedding on it, and in the corner there was a dark cast-iron stove. The seals on the door leading to the prisoner’s rooms were intact.
Explanation .. It was 3O’clock – just nine hours away from the door would be flung open to let the prisoner walk out free with two million in the wallet. The banker got up, wore his overcoat, retrieved the key from the chest and stealthily tiptoed his way out of his room. The cold night’s chill and the howling winds swayed the garden trees wildly. Trains fell incessantly adding to the infernal environment.
The banker looked around, but found nothing of the usual objects like the statue, the trees and the lodge. Somewhat bewildered, he called out loudly for the watchman. He received no reply from the watchman who, apparently slept off somewhere.
Awful thoughts crossed the banker’s mind. He could not muster the courage to smother the prisoner to evade the two million pay-out. It was too risky a thought, he concluded. The needle of suspicion would point to the watchman, he felt glibly.
He proceeded towards the lodge in the darkness. He crossed the passage and lighted a match. He was flummoxed to discover that the cell was empty with no one inside. There lay a bare bedstead and a cast iron stove. Curiously, the seal of the cell was intact..
When the match went out the old man, trembling with emotion, peeped through the little window. A candle was burning dimly in the prisoner’s room. He was sitting at the table. Nothing could be seen but his back, the hair on his head, and his hands. Open books were lying on the table, on the two easy-chairs, and on the carpet near the table.
Five minutes passed and the prisoner did not once stir. Fifteen years’ imprisonment had taught him to sit still. The banker tapped at the window with his finger, and the prisoner made no movement whatever in response. Then the banker cautiously broke the seals off the door and put the key in the keyhole. The rusty lock gave a grating sound and the door creaked. The banker expected to hear at once footsteps and a cry of astonishment, but three minutes passed and it was as quiet as ever in the room. He made up his mind to go in.
At the table a man unlike ordinary people was sitting motionless. He was a skeleton with the skin drawn tight over his bones, with long curls like a woman’s and a shaggy beard. His face was yellow with an earthy tint in it, his cheeks were hollow, his back long and narrow, and the hand on which his shaggy head was propped was so thin and delicate that it was dreadful to look at it. His hair was already streaked with silver, and seeing his emaciated, aged-looking face, no one would have believed that he was only forty. He was asleep … In front of his bowed head there lay on the table a sheet of paper on which there was something written in fine handwriting.
“Poor creature!” thought the banker, “he is asleep and most likely dreaming of the millions. And I have only to take this half-dead man, throw him on the bed, stifle him a little with the pillow, and the most conscientious expert would find no sign of a violent death. But let us first read what he has written here … “
The banker took the page from the table and read as follows:
“To-morrow at twelve o’clock I regain my freedom and the right to associate with other men, but before I leave this room and see the sunshine, I think it necessary to say a few words to you. With a clear conscience I tell you, as before God, who beholds me, that I despise freedom and life and health, and all that in your books is called the good things of the world.
“For fifteen years I have been intently studying earthly life. It is true I have not seen the earth nor men, but in your books I have drunk fragrant wine, I have sung songs, I have hunted stags and wild boars in the forests, have loved women … Beauties as ethereal as clouds, created by the magic of your poets and geniuses, have visited me at night, and have whispered in my ears wonderful tales that have set my brain in a whirl. In your books I have climbed to the peaks of Elburz and Mont Blanc, and from there I have seen the sun rise and have watched it at evening flood the sky, the ocean, and the mountain-tops with gold and crimson. I have watched from there the lightning flashing over my head and cleaving the storm-clouds. I have seen green forests, fields, rivers, lakes, towns. I have heard the singing of the sirens, and the strains of the shepherds’ pipes; I have touched the wings of comely devils who flew down to converse with me of God … In your books I have flung myself into the bottomless pit, performed miracles, slain, burned towns, preached new religions, conquered whole kingdoms …
Explanation … The match went out. Overwhelmed by a torrent of emotions, the banker peeped through the little window. He saw the back of lone man, He had a hairy body. Books lay scattered on his table. The books were strewn everywhere – on the easy chair and on the carpet.
The prisoner sat motionless. Perhaps the long confinement had taught him to sit still. He even seemed not to hear the sound which banker made by tapping the window. The banker broke the seal on the door and opened it with the key that had not been used in the last fifteen years. The banker paused for a few minutes, but saw no reaction from the prisoner. The banker decided to go in.
At the table was seated a man reduced to his bare bones. He looked gaunt and spent. His hair had turned white and his emaciated look evoked both horror and sympathy. The man seemed to be asleep. There were a few pieces of paper before him.
The banker assumed that the man was half dead. It wouldn’t take much effort to lift him to the bed and then strangle him with his pillow. Death would come instantaneously, and others would have little clue that the man met a violent death. Thinking these, he thought he should read whatever was scribbled on the papers.
What the prisoner had written shook the banker. He had told that he was on the verge of deliverance from the fifteen years of isolation, but was not the least thrilled by it. He had little yearning for the worldly pleasures like wealth, health and pleasures that ordinary mortals covet so much. Then the prisoner had explained how being engrossed in serious studies had nurtured his soul, enriched his understanding of the ways of the world. Through his studies he had experienced the excitement people feel on climbing mountain peaks, hunting in the jungles and loving women. He had sailed through the clouds, feasted his eyes with the beauty of the earth, the mountains, the woods, towns, villages and cities. He had derived profound pleasure from his journey through the books and he was a complete and contented man. It had been a bewildering experience to try and understand the mysteries of creation and the intrigues of existence. He had never let his mind waver from God, the Creator and Destroyer of everything.
“Your books have given me wisdom. All that the unresting thought of man has created in the ages is compressed into a small compass in my brain. I know that I am wiser than all of you.
“And I despise your books, I despise wisdom and the blessings of this world. It is all worthless, fleeting, illusory, and deceptive, like a mirage. You may be proud, wise, and fine, but death will wipe you off the face of the earth as though you were no more than mice burrowing under the floor, and your posterity, your history, your immortal geniuses will burn or freeze together with the earthly globe.
“You have lost your reason and taken the wrong path. You have taken lies for truth, and hideousness for beauty. You would marvel if, owing to strange events of some sorts, frogs and lizards suddenly grew on apple and orange trees instead of fruit, or if roses began to smell like a sweating horse; so I marvel at you who exchange heaven for earth. I don’t want to understand you.
“To prove to you in action how I despise all that you live by, I renounce the two million of which I once dreamed as of paradise and which now I despise. To deprive myself of the right to the money I shall go out from here five hours before the time fixed, and so break the compact …”
When the banker had read this he laid the page on the table, kissed the strange man on the head, and went out of the lodge, weeping. At no other time, even when he had lost heavily on the Stock Exchange, had he felt so great a contempt for himself. When he got home he lay on his bed, but his tears and emotion kept him for hours from sleeping.
Next morning the watchmen ran in with pale faces, and told him they had seen the man who lived in the lodge climb out of the window into the garden, go to the gate, and disappear. The banker went at once with the servants to the lodge and made sure of the flight of his prisoner. To avoid arousing unnecessary talk, he took from the table the writing in which the millions were renounced, and when he got home locked it up in the fireproof safe.
Explanation …. The prisoner declared how he has found the books deeply educative and entertaining. They had provided wisdom and knowledge, and had helped him to fend off frustration, despair and boredom through the fifteen years of isolation. As a result, he had emerged wiser than most mortals on earth.
In the next breath, the prisoner pours scorn over the same books he had lauded so much. He said he was not the least enthused by what the world calls wisdom, and the pleasures the world so generously distributes among the humans. All these were like a mirage, so unreal, so deceptive and so transitory.
A man might have risen to the zenith of fame, wealth and valour, but death comes so disdainfully, ruthlessly, and reduces the mightiest human to a mass of rotten flesh. Time devours everything from the face of earth. The biggest of the man-made wonders get reduced to dust with the passage of time. Nothing is eternal, nothing survives the jaws of destruction.
Then he proceeded to chide the banker as a gullible person who had lost his way in this illusory world. A false sense of vanity, happiness, and fulfillment had reduced him to the state of a lunatic, unable to discern what is real and what is not. His life was vain and a colossal failure.
With these words of admonishment, the prisoner proceeded to deal his fatal blow! To vindicate his stand, he offered to relinquish his claim for the two million. To show that the banker had not reneged on his promise, the prisoner volunteered to escape the confinement just five hours before the end, so as to make it appear that he flouted the clause of the contract – not the old banker.
The banker became speechless on reading the note and made a quiet exit. Emotions, sense of shame, guilt and remorse overtook him as he stepped out of the lodge. Sleep eluded him for the rest of the night.
Next morning, the news of the prisoner’s premature escape was conveyed to the banker by his host of housekeepers and gardeners. The watermen said that they had seen with their own eyes how the prisoner climbed out of the window into the garden before exiting the place. The banker hurried to see for himself that the prisoner had indeed escaped. To ensure that the prisoner had triumphantly walked away from the two million, the baker quickly grabbed the note and hid it. He wanted the mystery to remain a mystery forever. By doing this, he saved himself of a lot of ignominy and shame.
Questions and answers will be posted soon.