Oh man, this short story really got my brain spinning! If you haven’t read it yet, you’re in for a treat. You can read it here. I bet you’ll read it twice!
A banker, lawyer, and other guests at a party are chatting and the conversation eventually turns toward the topic of capital punishment. The banker believes that capital punishment is better and more humane than a life sentence because it kills instantly, where a life sentence kills one slowly. Different though is the lawyer who believes both are evil, but a life sentence is better so one could live a life than no life at all. They banter back and forth for a bit, the debate escalating all the while. Finally, the banker bets the lawyer two million dollars that he couldn’t be confined to a cell for more than five years. The lawyer, trying to prove himself, ups the bet to 15 years.
The lawyer enters his “cell,” a locked wing in the banker’s home, and begins the 15 years voluntary imprisonment. He can have no interaction with the outside world other than a small window in the room and communication was to be by a piece of paper slipped underneath the door. The lawyer was allowed to have a musical instrument, books, wine, and tobacco, if he wished.
Over the next 15 years, the lawyer occupied his time with playing the piano, reading, and learning six new languages.
As the fifteenth year draws closer, the banker begins to regret the bet he made with the lawyer. He has been careless with his money and upholding this bet would “ruin him.” He contemplates killing the lawyer, however, when the banker went to carry his evil plan out, he found the lawyer motionless at his desk with a note beside him. The note explains that the lawyer now despises freedom and all things earthly because he was able to experience all the same things through the books that he read. Instead of finishing the 15 years, he escaped through a window five minutes before the time was up. The banker took the note and locked it in his safe.
I read a lot, as in hundreds and hundreds, of short stories in school, but this one was new to me. I’m going to be honest, I had to reread it about five times and I may have cheated a little (even English graduates use SparkNotes sometimes…shhhh!). I had a few ideas of my own already from reading, but I was having trouble grasping the “bigger picture” and understanding the lawyer’s note at the end, but once I got that, the wheels started turning. The more I read and researched and researched and read, the more in depth the story got. I love when that happens! I’ll do my best to write out these swarming thoughts in my head.
First things first. The first paragraph is so simple, somewhat mundane, and a little straightforward. Notice I didn’t say boring. Sometimes simple is mistaken for boring or bad writing (for readers and writers both), but it doesn’t have to be. The beginning sets the tone for the entire piece. Simple and straightforward are what you will get in the story and it works because nothing really happens. If you take a look at the linear plot, it is a banker pacing the floor retelling a story that happened at least 15 years ago, and that is where the actual story that we read comes from. Basically, the “what actually happened in this story” was a banker told the audience a story. Essentially, nothing. A lot of stories, books, and movies are like this. The Princess Bride is a perfect example.(Disclaimer: I’ve never read the book, so this example is based off of the movie). In the film, the grandpa reads a story to his grandson and that is where the ever constant and never-failing quotes of “as you wish,” “inconceivable,” and “you killed my father, prepare to die” came from. But again, take a look at what actually happened. Nothing really. Other than a bedtime story. A few more examples of this are: The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, Inception, and even Evelyn’s train scene in Pearl Harbor where she tells her girlfriends how she met Rafe.
Basically, what I’m trying to say is the beginning sets up the rest of the story where nothing really happens. We’ll see this same kind of thing later on as well.
Whew. Let’s talk about something else now.
Or maybe, no change at all?
I didn’t have strong feelings towards any of these characters when I first read, but after taking a closer look, I think I despise the banker and feel for the lawyer. But at the same time, they are both kind of dumb.
One thing that really baffled me in this story is the banker’s actions. He willingly bet two million dollars, put the lawyer in solitary confinement, and hoped that he would fail. He never came out and said that, but he did say, “That cursed bet…Why didn’t the man die?” It’s clear the banker never wanted him to succeed and he even tried to persuade him to back out of the bet by saying,
“Come to your senses, young roan, before it’s too late. Two millions are nothing to me, but you stand to lose three or four of the best years of your life. I say three or four, because you’ll never stick it out any longer. Don’t forget either, you unhappy man, that voluntary is much heavier than enforced imprisonment. The idea that you have the right to free yourself at any moment will poison the whole of your life in the cell. I pity you.”
Even so, the banker was perfectly content catering to the lawyers every want/need offering him wine, tobacco, endless supply of books, musical instruments, etc., until the 15 years were up and he realized the lawyer had succeeded.
If he really wanted to treat him like a prisoner and win the bet, it would seem that he wouldn’t have been so willing to entertain him. The lawyer knew he could come out at any time, but why would he if had everything he wanted delivered straight to him? Why would the banker do this if he wanted him to fail? What did he expect? Maybe he didn’t think that would be enough to keep him for fifteen years? Or maybe because the lawyer changed even more so than the banker. (See below).
The lawyer, at the start, was loud, determined, had a boss like quality or aura, and wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. At the end, he seemed nervous, jittery, and disappointed in himself.
The point-of-view was that of the banker, which is why it’s even more interesting that the lawyer had the most significant change. Even though the reader does not get to know the lawyer’s thoughts and feelings like we do the banker’s throughout the text, the lawyer’s actions are enough for us to understand partly what he is going through. The biggest change in the lawyer is seen at the end, which I will get to. But, there are pivotal moments that foreshadow that ending.
Chekhov has a nonchalant, easy-going, “nothing happens,” kind of tone throughout this piece. Nothing is necessarily “built up,” descriptive, or climatic in any way. However, he takes great care (a full page, actually) to detail several of the fifteen years that the lawyer spent locked up.
For example, the first year, the lawyer spent playing the piano and asked for books “of light character; novels with a complicated love interest,…crime and fantasy, comedies, and so on.” He refused wine and tobacco because it “excites desires, and desires are the chief foes of a prisoner; besides, nothing is more boring than to drink good wine alone,” and tobacco spoils the air in his room.” He was most likely lonely, but the fact that he refused wine and tobacco speaks a lot for his character—he’s not doing that bad if he’s rejecting those two things. It was in the fifth year that the reader begins to see a big change. The lawyer stopped reading books, talked angrily to himself, cried, and began drinking wine. That is a key indicator that his demeanor and attitude are shifting. He’s not just drinking wine to pass the time, he’s drinking wine because he no longer cares that he is “drink[ing] good wine alone.” Beginning in the sixth year, he began to read again, but his taste changed from light hearted fantasy novels to dense non-fiction that carried through his later years.
His physical appearance at the end is that of a man much older than 40. It seems as though the lawyer has completely given up on life, or has he? (see below) This is where shmoops and myself differ.
I was rooting for you lawyer, we were all rooting for you!
Funny enough, the ending is what confused me in this story, but it’s also what ultimately made me decide to do a review of it because I immediately wanted to read it again. The ending draws the reader back to the beginning because it leaves the reader in somewhat of a daze. It forces the reader to analyze the character’s intentions, feelings, and ask themselves, “Did the characters change their opinion?”, “Did I change my mind?”, and “What in the world just happened?”
Remember when I told you I cheated? It was because of this letter. When I first read it, I interpreted it as a positive thing. The lawyer says,
“That I may show you in deed my contempt for that by which you live, I waive the two millions of which I once dreamed as of paradise, and which I now despise.”
The lawyer didn’t want nor need the money because he had already experienced life in books. Life is hard and nothing is really as it seems. But in books, it’s all right there for us to see and experience. He doesn’t need the money to live life like the banker does.
I wanted another opinion though.
Given everything discussed in the “character change” section, it’s easy to see that he has given up on life and all things “real.” Shmoop explained it to be more of a negative thing because the lawyer’s years in isolation gave him a warped sense of reality. This was extremely detrimental to his attitude and outlook of life. He had been so deprived of human interaction that it made him bitter, give up on life, and let himself go, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and all things -ly.
I think both of our views are valid, but I do think he still cares about the world and real experiences because on at least one occasion, he sought the outside world’s acceptance. After studying six languages, he asked the banker to show his work to an expert and if he was correct, to have a
“a gun fired off in the garden. By the noise I shall know that my efforts have not been in vain. The geniuses of all ages and countries speak in different languages; but in them all burns the same flame. Oh, if you knew my heavenly happiness now that I can understand them!”
Why would he care if others “on the outside” could understand him if he had completely given up?
Why would he bother having a gun fired off if he was correct? Why would it even matter if he was correct?
Because he’s human, he has not completely given up! He still wants to be accepted, to learn, and to communicate with the outside world. He still has a desire to “save his life” even if he was “eagerly grasping one piece after another.” Maybe this is why he left five minutes early. He realized there’s more to life than money and trying to prove himself. This goes back to his character development. He obviously didn’t care about family and life to lock himself up for 15 years. Maybe now he does?
We don’t get to know the rest of their story. What happened to the lawyer? Do you think the lawyer changed his mind? Is life behind bars better than no life at all?
What about the banker? Does he feel guilty for considering killing the lawyer? Does he still believe in capital punishment? Why did he lock the note in his safe?
I know Shmoop and similar sites are looked down upon in the literary world, but they can be a great resource. I always to write my own thoughts first, and then go research and look at other analysis. Otherwise, my own thought’s get clouded and overlooked, but the do help if you’re stuck or just want to think abotu things a different way. If you’re interested in looking at “The Bet” even in more depth, check out Shmoop’s site.
PSS. I know this review is a little haphazard. It’s so hard to keep everything in neat categories when everything overlaps. That’s what I love about reading though.
And let me know your thoughts!