The Bet by Anton Chekhov
In The Bet by Anton Chekhov we have the theme of morality, integrity, isolation, materialism, change and desperation. Taken from his Collected Short Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unknown narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Chekhov may be exploring the theme of morality. The young man forfeits his bet with the banker as his morals have changed from what they were fifteen years earlier. He no longer thinks of wine or women but is more knowledgeable about life and sees the pitfalls that come with his previous way of thinking. It is as though the young man deems it fit to isolate himself from the world when the reality is he has no real need to. He can win the bet however his integrity and self-belief do not afford him the opportunity to do so. If anything the young man’s perspective on life has changed completely. Through reading volumes of books he no longer has the same appetite for life. Much to the relief of the banker whose own fortunes have worsened over the fifteen years.
In fact so desperate is the banker to win the bet he contemplates killing the young man before he can set him free. It is this desperation which suggests that the banker, unlike the young man, has learnt nothing over the last fifteen years. He has not changed in any significant way. Material gain remains important to him whereas the young man through educating himself sees no real value in money. It is also interesting that the young man said he would prefer solitary confinement to capital punishment as part of him has died while he was imprisoned. Gone is the man who beat loneliness in his first few years while imprisoned. Who drank to the joys of wine and read the classics. For the young man all this is meaningless. He has a new outlook on life one that does not involve material gain. Something which some critics might consider to be strange. For a man’s morals and integrity to change so much over a period of time. It is as if the young man is enlightened by his stay in the lodge and reading all the books.
In many ways the physical condition of the young man after fifteen years mirrors his value system of old. It too has deteriorated and is replaced by a new value system. One that many men might not understand but which makes the young man happier in life. Happier than even winning the bet. The young man sees the shallowness of mankind and does not wish to be part of it. Hence him leaving the lodge five hours early. He may have lost the bet but he has discovered who he truly is. A goal that many people aim for but rarely achieve. Despite several attempts at doing so. In many ways the young man should be envied because he cannot be bought and is open to independent thinking. Thanks to all the reading he has done. Whereas the banker is a fragile wreck of a man because of his financial losses.
The end of the story is interesting as the banker keeps the young man’s letter which may leave some readers to suspect that though the banker doesn’t want others to know about the letter. He still respects the young man. Which helps to shine a little positive light on the banker. Who for most of the story has been more concerned about losing the bet than how the young man may be doing. As to what happens the young man is difficult to say. He may or may not find happiness in life. He may even end up isolating himself completely from a society he considers to be corrupt. The young man’s future remains unwritten. Which may be the point that Chekhov is making. He may be suggesting that the reader should consider their own value system. To check upon what is needed and what can be discarded. In order to live a morally upright life. A life that is not concerned about other people’s opinions and is not driven by the mob but one that lives independently of others.