Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was a Russian playwright and short-story writer, who is considered to be among the greatest writers of short fiction in history. He is considered one of the fathers of modernist literature. He was a medical practitioner and often said that medicine was his lawfully wedded wife while literature his mistress. His stories were often along the lines of meaning of life and how to find one’s passion, calling and purpose in life. “The Bet”, one of his most acclaimed short stories was written in 1889. 2019, marks 130 years of the short story, however it is still as meaningful to a 21st century reader. In this article I analyse and discuss this timeless short story and its major themes.
Chekhov’s later plays were a variety comic satire, pointing out the unhappy nature of existence in turn-of-the-century Russia. Chekhov’s style was described best by the poet himself when he wrote:
“All I wanted was to say honestly to people: ‘Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are!’ The important thing is that people should realize that, for when they do, they will most certainly create another and better life for themselves. I will not live to see it, but I know that it will be quite different, quite unlike our present life. And so long as this different life does not exist, I shall go on saying to people again and again: ‘Please, understand that your life is bad and dreary!‘”
“The Bet” is about the journey of a young lawyer through fifteen years of voluntary solitary confinement, and his attainment of self-realization at the end of the term. At a dinner party, an argument ensued on capital punishment versus life imprisonment, between a prosperous, middle-aged banker and a young, upcoming lawyer. The vastly rich, confident and impulsive banker, who was in favour of the death sentence, challenged the lawyer to stay for five years in solitary confinement and thus win two million roubles. The lawyer, in his eagerness to prove his point, channeled in part by greed for the money, agreed to stay, not five but fifteen years in solitary confinement. His voluntary extension of his sentence shows the determination in his character, as also a streak of arrogance and a considerable confidence in his own opinions.
In accordance with the terms of the bet, the lawyer was placed in a lodge in the banker’s garden. The lodge had one window. He could have a musical instrument and books and was allowed to write letters, to drink wine and to smoke. According to the agreement the lawyer would forfeit his prize money even if he left his confinement two minutes before end of term. The temptation to leave would forever be in front of him, making his stay doubly difficult.
As years of his confinement passed, the initial self-assured and somewhat greedy attitude of the lawyer underwent a change. In the first five years of his confinement, the lawyer suffered from severe loneliness and depression. He missed human company a lot and tried to compensate for it through books and music. He was seen angrily talking to himself and crying. He refused wine, saying it fuelled more desires. He tried to control his longing for worldly pleasures logically.
After five years, a transformation started to occur. It was as if he had succumbed to his desires and was looking for a way to fulfill them in the confines of his cell. He asked for wine and ate and slept a lot. Then in the sixth year, he discovered the key to experience the whole world within his prison walls. He decided to gather immense amounts of knowledge. He threw himself zealously into studying languages, philosophy and history. He mastered six hundred volumes in four years. Through books, lawyer experienced all the sensations of the real world, drank fragrant wine, sang songs, hunted stags and wild boars, loved women, climbed peaks of high mountains and watched the glories of nature. We learn through his last letter that he saw lakes, forests, rivers, heard the singing of sirens and strains of shepherds’ songs, touched the wings of comely devils and spoke with them of God, all through books. He mastered six languages and read works of wise men across the world which gave him an insight that clever people all over the world think alike. This was a high point in his quest of knowledge as it made him feel powerful.
At the end of ten years, he read the Gospel, theology and the history of religion. He was riveted to the thin book for a year. This had a profound influence on him. His last letter also tells us of how he experienced the history of religion himself, performed miracles, killed men, burned towns, preached new religions and conquered whole kingdoms. Having experienced all the worldly pleasures and powers, as a free man would, he saw their futility and the two million roubles that he had dreamt of spending, stopped charming him. All the sensory pleasures he had virtually experienced, and all the knowledge he had acquired too, he understood to be fleeting and illusory. He understood that death leveled it all. As if to test his enlightenment, he requisitioned and read, in his last two years of confinement, an indiscriminate variety of books, ranging from those on natural sciences, chemistry and medicine to Byron and Shakespeare, to see whether it held any charm for him as it had done before.
Meanwhile, on the last night of the lawyer’s confinement, the banker panicked, as he was to pay him a large sum of money. His financial condition had deteriorated in the years gone by, he was hugely in debt, and he plotted to kill the lawyer. On reaching the lodge to carry out his plan, he chanced upon the letter written by the lawyer, in which the lawyer had written in detail about everything that the books allowed him to experience, concluding however, that he considered it all worthless. He went on to say that he despised the world, its temporary gratifications and its edification of knowledge, because according to him all the world was a falsehood, an ensnarement. People were taking all those lies to be true, and the hideousness of the material world to be beauty, blinding themselves to the real blissful heaven within.
The lawyer in his letter stated that he would leave his confinement five hours before the end of term, thus forfeiting his money. He renounced the world in a manner akin to kings renouncing their kingdoms to become saints; except that in his case, all his indulgence was virtual, through books.
What is the purpose of life and what gives us happiness? To a post-structuralist 21st century reader, even knowledge for its own sake is not meaningful as a life purpose. The character trait of the banker that stands out in the end is an attachment to symbols of status before having an intrinsic identity. The lawyer on the other hand is freed of a self identity while living in isolation. There are several questions the story raises: How should you live in society without always defining yourself according to its standards? How should you follow your self-ethos without impinging upon others’? How should you find a passion that allows you to be entrenched and detached at the same time?
I think a modern 21st century reading of literature should not just be able to grasp what an author meant to convey but also have the ability to engage with meaning on our own subjective ideological level and deduce something new of what is in a piece of literature. Such a reading of Chekhov’s work would leave us with just questions and not answers. That is what critical reading is all about. It is about asking the right questions and floating those questions in the air of mental space where more thoughts can collide with them and create new syntheses.
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