Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

"The Bet"

“The Bet”
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov


PLOT SUMMARY: While hosting a party at his home, a wealthy banker falls into a discussion about the death penalty, in which he argues that capital punishment is more humane than life imprisonment. A young lawyer in attendance disagrees, claiming that he would rather be imprisoned for the rest of his life than killed. They make a bet of two million rubles that the lawyer couldn’t spend fifteen years in solitary confinement.


     The lawyer spends his time writing, playing piano, reading books, and educating himself. While in solitary confinement he goes through a number of phases including suffering from loneliness, serious studying of languages, science, literature, religion, and philosophy. During this time, the banker loses much of his fortune and realizes that losing the bet would leave him bankrupt. To avoid this, he plans to kill the lawyer the day before the bet is up to avoid having to pay. When he goes to kill the lawyer, the banker reads a note the lawyer left, which claims that the lawyer had given up worldly possessions and had no plans to claim the reward, so the banker chooses not to kill him. The lawyer leaves his solitary confinement one day before the fifteen years would be up, so he forfeits the reward.


ANALYSIS: In “The Bet,” the lawyer’s time in solitary confinement is transformational and allows him to achieve a higher form of understanding. In doing so, it makes the argument that although solitary confinement is horrible, there is a potential benefit to years of imprisonment, something that most of what we read this semester disagree with.


     “The Bet” offers a perspective of captivity that is unique from the vast majority of prison literature in that prisoner in the story has the choice to leave at any time but remains due to stubbornness and greed. It also differs from traditional prison literature in that the overall message that the author is trying to convey is not inherently about prisons or incarceration, but instead is about the materialistic lifestyle embraced by one of the main characters.




“The death sentence and the life sentence are equally immoral. … But, if I had to choose between them, I’d certainly choose the second. Any kind of life is better than no life at all.” (191)


“What’s the use of the man losing fifteen years of his life? Or of my throwing away two million? Does it prove that the death penalty is better or worse than life imprisonment? Certainly not!” (192)


“You have lost your senses and are on the wrong path. You take lies for truth, and ugliness for beauty. You would be surprised if apple and orange trees somehow sprouted with frogs and lizards instead of fruit, or if roses smelt like a sweating horse. No less am I surprised at you who have exchanged heaven for earth. I do not want to understand you.” (196)


BIOGRAPHY: Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born on January 29, 1860, in the southern city of Taganrog to Yevgeniya Morozova and Pavel Yegorovich Chekhov. His father, Pavel Yegorovich, was the son of a former serf and ran a grocery store. During Chekhov’s childhood, his father was physically abusive of Chekhov and his siblings as well as their mother. Three years before Chekhov would finish school, his father went bankrupt and moved the rest of the family to Moscow, while Chekhov remained in Taganrog to finish school. During this time, he earned money by tutoring other students. After moving to Moscow to be with this family, Chekhov enrolled in medical school while supporting his family by writing short stories and comic sketches in local newspapers. He would continue to practice medicine throughout his entire life, while writing mainly on the side.


     By the time he was 28, Chekhov had become a popular “lowbrow” author. Around this time, he published his first serious literary work “Steppe.” Over time, Chekhov transitioned into writing the more serious short stories and plays he is best known for. In 1897, at the age of 37, Chekhov suffered a lung hemorrhage caused by tuberculosis. With hopes that a warmer climate might help his health issues, Chekhov moved to Yalta in Crimea, where he lived until his death in 1904. During this time, he married Olga Knipper, a young actress, who was appearing in his plays. While living in Yalta, Chekhov wrote primarily dramas including two of his best-known plays: Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. He died on July 14, 1904, in Badenweiler, Germany at the age of 44.




Chekhov, Anton. “The Bet.” The Oxford Chekhov: Stories 1888-1889. Translated and edited by Ronald Hingley, Oxford University Press, 1980. 


Hingley, Ronald Francis. “Anton Chekhov.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 6 Feb. 2019,

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