Saturday, November 12, 2016

"The Bet" (1889)

Read story by Anton Chekhov online.

Anton Chekhov's very short and much anthologized story has more gimmicks than I normally expect from him, though I think it works and also has many characteristic notes. It's more of a fable in structure, a thought experiment, and arguably gets twisty toward the end. The bet of the title is between a banker and a lawyer. The banker bets "two millions" (from the Constance Garnett translations) that the lawyer could not tolerate five years of solitary confinement, that no man could. The lawyer cries, "Make it 15 years and you've got a bet, mister," or words to that effect, and they're on. This all comes of a discussion about the death penalty. Neither man is entirely happy with himself about making the commitment, but there's no going back. The banker sets him up in a room and the rules are settled: "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." There was a system for exchanging food, books, and letters. If you're anything like me, it doesn't actually sound so bad. Chekhov's imagination feels lively and engaged, as he imagines various changes in approach to living over the years. At the end of the story, a number of ironic events transpire, and various surprises. They seem to be about the characters of the kinds of men who would make a bet like this. My favorite parts, actually, after the entertainment of the premise itself, are their private doubts and misgivings, which we're privy to via the omniscient narrator. The banker paces and agonizes later: "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 millions? Can it prove that the death penalty is better or worse than imprisonment for life? No, no. It was all nonsensical and meaningless." I love it when Russian writers sound like that (which is possibly Garnett). The lawyer's own sense of the meaninglessness of the bet informs his actions in the resolution, more or less. But more than anything I liked reading about the terms of the confinement, though it was indeed very harsh and strict about human relations. Among other things, there's a good case here that both of them won the bet, and lost the bet, and did so independently of one another. A pretty neat little literary stunt—as I said, a thought experiment more than anything else, but a nicely done and intriguing one.

Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov

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