Story analysis of The Bet
In the modern world, a prison is usually a place where people are trapped as punishment for crimes. Usually a prison takes the form of a jail. But one 19th century author had the idea that a traditional prison might not be a prison at all, that mental imprisonment, usually in the form of foolishness, is worse than physical prison. In other words, “The Bet,” by Anton Chekhov, is a stunning and original story that uses many elements of literature to show that our society’s accepted definition of prison may be quite wrong.
The first element of literature Chekhov uses is characterization. In “The Bet,” there are two main characters: the banker and the prisoner. In the beginning of the story, the banker is very wealthy, as shown by how carelessly he throws his money away when he makes the bet in paragraph 5: “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.’” Such spontaneous staking of two million dollars would not have come from anything less than a man who had much more than that amount in his bank account. However, not even a man that rich would stake that much so quickly; this passage shows that the banker is frivolous with his money. As far as the prisoner goes, it can be determined that he is a smart, studious man who is opinionated, which we see in paragraph 3 and 4: “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.’" This quote shows that he was smart enough to be learned in law by the tender age of twenty-five, and that he readily gives his opinion on the topic at hand. By the characterizations of both gentlemen, you can see that one is foolish, the other wise beyond his years; though both are free men, perhaps the wiser gentleman--the prisoner--is the one who is truly free from the prison of foolishness
Besides using characterization to reveal that foolishness is what truly locks us up in this world, Anton Chekhov also uses symbolism. Symbolism contributes a good deal to the interpretation of a story through the multiple meanings that different objects, descriptions, or animals take on. Take, for example, page 1 of “The Bet” when the phrase “It was a dark autumn night” is used. What comes to mind when you hear about this particular season? Perhaps that what was once living and well is entering a new part of life? Maybe even death came to mind. But it’s quite clear that throughout the story, the fact that its beginning is set in autumn shows that this man, or “the banker,” is unwillingly having to turn from his youth, to a time when a new season in his life is coming and death is not far away. Through the author’s use of such a bleak season, he turns the atmosphere into that of a gloomy or even a sad one, thus clarifying that the element of symbolism has clearly emphasized the message that our own follies are what will eventually imprison us until our death.
The third element of writing that Chekhov uses to strengthen the significance of the absurdity of prison for life is irony. Most of the irony in this story is situational , because the roles the main characters play contradict their occupations. For example, the banker, who is supposed to be a person who can wisely manage money, happens to be the one who ends up blowing two million dollars on a foolish bet. Also, the prisoner is a lawyer, and lawyers are people who are supposed to keep people out of jail, but he ends up in jail himself. As we read in paragraphs 6 and 7: “ 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,’” proving that the man is a banker, but above all else, that the banker (of all people!) would strike out in foolishness and bet away a great sum of money. In paragraph 7 after the banker has proposed the bet, the lawyer replies: “‘If you mean that in earnest,’ said the young man, ‘I'll take the bet, but I would stay not five but fifteen years.’” This proves that the lawyer, a type of person that dedicate their lives putting others into prison, willingly puts himself in instead. All this evidence justifies that even the people who are supposed to be the wisest in the category of law and money end up contradicting what they’ve dedicated their life’s work to, thereby being ironic--as well as proving Chekhov’s point that foolishness (revealed by the irony) has made them both trapped to what’s not commonly perceived as a jail--our own folly.Now the fourth literary piece that lends evidence that stupidity encases with the strongest bars is the plot. This is shown in the story because the author makes it clear that the plot of “The Bet” is that none of them can achieve happiness or pleasure whilst this foolish bet is in play. Evidence of can be found in the statement in paragraph 12 when it is said: “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 ...’” It is evident here that the banker himself—the one who put the bet into play, is the one who is having second thoughts, and it is obvious that some sort of guilt is setting because of his endeavor, thus proving that a conclusion can be met that remorse and guilt due to unwise deeds is the plot of this short story. The same plot encompasses the life of the young lawyer as well, within his spirit. As the 14th paragraph states: “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.” This settles what the plot is for this man—unhappiness from the bet, and foolishness itself. All these making clear that the plot due to “empty wisdom” driven acts is the unhappiness generated by the bet of the banker.
Next to the plot, we find that the element of theme, or the central idea of a story, helps uncover the fact that foolishness can be it’s own prison cell. The theme of the story is that when foolishness, or the lack of knowledge, is the vine which grows and prospers in ones mind, this person has caged himself in it. One place we find this theme to be evident is in paragraph 37 which tells us: “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.” In this passage, it’s the prisoner explaining to us, who is now a man much wiser and smarter than the banker due to his (the banker) captivity to confusion and likewise due to his “desire for foolishness.” With that being said, it is now settled that the main aspect of the story is the fact that lack of knowledge is the lack of freedom.
Another aspect of the elements of literature that is prevalent in “The Bet” is imagery, which the author uses masterfully to express particular points within the story. One such place we find evidence of imagery is in the eleventh paragraph from the end where the banker walks in upon his “captive” and notices, “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.” Mr. Chekhov uses astounding imagery in this description of the aged, forty year old and worn-out body of the once “young lawyer,” as well as providing the reader with a solid image of how the beaten down young man has evolved into a pathetic creature since his trip into solitary confinement. Or, at least, so it appears to the eyes of the selfish banker, who sees only what is set before him and does not yet understand what the young lawyer has become - which is an overall better person. As we can see through Mr. Anton Chekhov’s use of imagery, there is a profound difference between mental health and physical health; though it may take away one’s years, it can, when used correctly, bring the wisdom truly required and yearned for to help “reform” individuals. The final element of literature that Anton Chekhov uses in “The Bet” is satire, which is blatantly obvious throughout the story while it exposes a differing outlook on eternal imprisonment. While most people are imprisoned against their will, when the young lawyer is given his 15 year sentence, he does so at his own will and does not despair, as one would expect a man in prison to. "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.” During his time in prison, the captive learns six languages, renounces all worldly goods, and gains a better understanding of life than those who are not captive to his solitude. As he says, “I am wiser than all of you.” Through Anton Chekhov’s use of Satire, we can see that life in prison needn’t be a boring and lifeless existence, but can rather be viewed as an opportunity to become wise beyond your years; which is something you may not have been able to do had you not so much free time on your hands.
Anton Chekhov was a masterful writer and often used his stories to try and change the public’s viewpoints about certain matters; and in this case, it was without a shadow of a doubt that his intention was to persuade us that society’s perception of jail could be quite wrong. Firstly, he used Characterisation to show that the character of the young lawyer, who is jailed for fifteen years, becomes far wiser in the years than the banker, who lives his life free. Next, he utilizes Symbolism to reveal that the only thing that holds us back, in this case, prison bars, is the obstacles we make for ourselves. Subsequently, he uses Irony to expose the idiocy and undeniable ludicrous of life-long prison sentences. Meanwhile, we can also see through his use of Plot that The Bet made by the two, the banker and lawyer, as well as their own foolishness brings much unhappiness. Fifthly, the author uses the theme of the story to show that we can be held captive by our own stupidity. In the case of this story, the “stupid one,” as it were, is the banker who drowns himself in debt and sorrow. Next, through the sixth element of literature, Imagery, Chekhov illustrates how people who see only the outside of things, like the banker, cannot comprehend how good things can come ugly packages (as the young lawyer lost his youth and looks during his fifteen years though became a much wiser man because of it). Seventh, Mr. Chekhov uses the Point of View, Third Person Limited, to reveal through the character of the banker the interesting and undoubtedly strange outlook of imprisonment for life as expressed by its supporters. Finally, through his use of Satire, Anton Chekhov voices that jail may not be as bad as many believe it to be, since it allows the inmates an opportunity to learn things they normally wouldn’t as well as devote their lives to wisdom and enlightenment. As a proficient author and sophisticated man with excellent use of the many elements of literature, Anton Chekhov leaves us with the admonition to not be influenced by society’s preconceived notion of life in prison and decide for ourselves how we wish to view it and how to answer the question raised in “The Bet”: Which is more immoral, to condemn someone to life in prison or to hand them a death sentence?