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Literary Devices in The Bet

Throughout “The Bet,” Chekhov employs a variety of literary devices to create a sense of realism. He uses a concise two-part story structure, ample metaphors and similes, and frequent foreshadowing to delineate between the two main characters and drive the plot forward. One of his best-known techniques throughout his writing is to leave the story’s conclusion open-ended. Although the bet is originally a matter of determining whether life in prison or the death penalty is more humane, the story ultimately shifts into an examination of the pointlessness of human desire and materiality. The ending asks readers to pause and contemplate.

Literary Devices Examples in The Bet:

Part I

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"His reading suggested a man swimming in the sea among the wreckage of his ship, and trying to save his life by greedily clutching first at one spar and then at another...."   (Part I)

Through metaphorical language, Chekhov likens the lawyer’s voracious reading habits to the behavior of someone who has been shipwrecked and tries to save himself by grasping at spars, or masts, of the downed ship. The metaphor suggests that the lawyer reads as if he is trying to save himself from destruction, using his books to pull himself out of the water.

"Byron or Shakespeare..."   (Part I)

George Gordon Byron (1788–1824), also known as Lord Byron, was an English politician and Romantic poet. William Shakespeare (1564–1616) was an English poet, playwright, and actor. Both men are regarded as some of the most renowned writers in the literary canon. During his confinement, the lawyer expands his understanding of the world by reading their works.

"unearthly..."   (Part I)

The word “unearthly” has several definitions: first, it can refer to something that is supernatural and mysterious; and second, it can refer to something that is not terrestrial. The lawyer finds “unearthly happiness” from being able to understand all these languages. This demonstrates a shift in the lawyer and foreshadows the ending of the story. As the lawyer studies and begins to understand the world in a new way, he rejects materiality and worldliness.

"as though you were no more than mice burrowing under the floor..."   (Part II)

Throughout the letter, the lawyer eviscerates all of the things and ideas people hold true. He says that all humans will perish from the earth as if they were only rodents. After all these years in solitary confinement, the lawyer clearly does not value human life. To him, all material possessions and earthly desires are ultimately futile.

"It is all worthless, fleeting, illusory, and deceptive, like a mirage...."   (Part II)

The word “mirage” refers to the effect of seeing a pool of water in the sea or desert that is actually caused by the reflection of light rays. The lawyer claims that everything seemingly worthwhile, is in effect “like a mirage.” The simile suggests that the lawyer believes all human desires are transient and fraudulent.

"singing of the sirens..."   (Part II)

A common motif throughout poetry, sirens are creatures in Greek mythology who use their singing voices to lure sailors to shipwreck on their island in the Mediterranean. The lawyer likely encountered allusions to sirens many times as he explored a vast catalogue of poetry.

"He was a skeleton with the skin drawn tight over his bones, with long curls like a woman’s and a shaggy beard...."   (Part II)

In his description of the lawyer, Chekhov makes clear the effects of solitary confinement. The man is metaphorically likened to a gaunt and sickly skeleton whose “skin [is] drawn tight over the bones.” The imagery of the man is grotesque and morbid, and the passage causes readers to pause for an instant.

"A damp cutting wind was racing about the garden, howling and giving the trees no rest...."   (Part II)

Through personification, Chekhov illustrates the tempestuousness of the weather outside. The rain and wind, which “howls” through the garden, reflects the banker’s feverish state of mind as he prepares to murder the lawyer.

"envy like a beggar,..."   (Part II)

The banker’s carelessness with his money has transformed him from a “proud, fearless, self-confident millionaire” into a “banker of middling rank.” Now, he is more prudent with his money and does not throw it away recklessly, like he did fifteen years ago when he made the bet with the lawyer. The simile of being envious “like a beggar” demonstrates his fear of losing all his money. He becomes so enraged that he states that he will do anything—even commit murder—to prevent his descent into bankruptcy and destitution.

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