Part I

IT WAS a dark autumn night. The old banker was walking up and down his study and remembering how, fifteen years before, he had given a party one autumn evening. There had been many clever men there, and there had been interesting conversations. Among other things they had talked of capital punishment. The majority of the guests, among whom were many journalists and intellectual men, disapproved of the death penalty. They considered that form of punishment out of date, immoral, and unsuitable for Christian States. In the opinion of some of them the death penalty ought to be replaced everywhere by imprisonment for life.

“I don’t agree with you,” said their host the banker. “I have not tried either the death penalty or imprisonment for life, but if one may judge a priori, the death penalty is more moral and more humane than imprisonment for life. Capital punishment kills a man at once, but lifelong imprisonment kills him slowly. Which executioner is the more humane, he who kills you in a few minutes or he who drags the life out of you in the course of many years?”

“Both are equally immoral,” observed one of the guests, “for they both have the same object—to take away life. The State is not God. It has not the right to take away what it cannot restore when it wants to.”

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.”

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 millions you wouldn’t stay in solitary confinement for five years.”

“If you mean that in earnest,” said the young man, “I’ll take the bet, but I would stay not five but fifteen years.”

“Fifteen? Done!” cried the banker. “Gentlemen, I stake two millions!”

“Agreed! You stake your millions and I stake my freedom!” said the young man.

And this wild, senseless bet was carried out! The banker, spoilt and frivolous, with millions beyond his reckoning, was delighted at the bet. At supper he made fun of the young man, and said:

“Think better of it, young man, while there is still time. To me two millions are a trifle, but you are losing three or four of the best years of your life. I say three or four, because you won’t stay longer. Don’t forget either, you unhappy man, that voluntary confinement is a great deal harder to bear than compulsory. The thought that you have the right to step out in liberty at any moment will poison your whole existence in prison. I am sorry for you.”

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 millions? 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....”

Then he remembered what followed that evening. It was decided that the young man should spend the years of his captivity under the strictest supervision in one of the lodges in the banker’s garden. 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. By the terms of the agreement, the only relations he could have with the outer world were by a little window made purposely for that object. He might have anything he wanted—books, music, wine, and so on—in any quantity he desired by writing an order, but could only receive them through the window. The agreement provided for every detail and every trifle that would make his imprisonment strictly solitary, and bound the young man to stay there exactly fifteen years, beginning from twelve o’clock of November 14, 1870, and ending at twelve o’clock of November 14, 1885. The slightest attempt on his part to break the conditions, if only two minutes before the end, released the banker from the obligation to pay him two millions.

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. The sounds of the piano could be heard continually day and night from his lodge. He refused wine and tobacco. Wine, he wrote, excites the desires, and desires are the worst foes of the prisoner; and besides, nothing could be more dreary than drinking good wine and seeing no one. And tobacco spoilt the air of his room. In the first year the books he sent for were principally of a light character; novels with a complicated love plot, sensational and fantastic stories, and so on.

In the second year the piano was silent in the lodge, and the prisoner asked only for the classics. In the fifth year music was audible again, and the prisoner asked for wine. Those who watched him through the window said that all that year he spent doing nothing but eating and drinking and lying on his bed, frequently yawning and angrily talking to himself. He did not read books. Sometimes at night he would sit down to write; he would spend hours writing, and in the morning tear up all that he had written. More than once he could be heard crying.

In the second half of the sixth year the prisoner began zealously studying languages, philosophy, and history. He threw himself eagerly into these studies—so much so that the banker had enough to do to get him the books he ordered. In the course of four years some six hundred volumes were procured at his request. It was during this period that the banker received the following letter from his prisoner:

“My dear Jailer, I write you these lines in six languages. Show them to people who know the languages. Let them read them. If they find not one mistake I implore you to fire a shot in the garden. That shot will show me that my efforts have not been thrown away. The geniuses of all ages and of all lands speak different languages, but the same flame burns in them all. Oh, if you only knew what unearthly happiness my soul feels now from being able to understand them!” The prisoner’s desire was fulfilled. The banker ordered two shots to be fired in the garden.

Then after the tenth year, the prisoner sat immovably at the table and read nothing but the Gospel. It seemed strange to the banker that a man who in four years had mastered six hundred learned volumes should waste nearly a year over one thin book easy of comprehension. Theology and histories of religion followed the Gospels.

In the last two years of his confinement the prisoner read an immense quantity of books quite indiscriminately. At one time he was busy with the natural sciences, then he would ask for Byron or Shakespeare. There were notes in which he demanded at the same time books on chemistry, and a manual of medicine, and a novel, and some treatise on philosophy or theology. 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.


  1. Here, the banker bets two million Russian rubles, equivalent to about $900,000 modern USD.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. 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.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. 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.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. The adverb “indiscriminately” means haphazardly and randomly. During the last two years of solitary confinement, the lawyer reads a vast number of books ranging from science to poetry in an enthusiastic and eager manner.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. 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.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. The verb “to implore” means to beseech someone to do something. Here, the lawyer implores the banker to fire shots in the garden if his letter accurately employs six different languages. The lawyer’s supplication demonstrates how he hopes his studies are not done in vain.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. The description of the lawyer’s time in solitary confinement speak to his intelligence and curiosity. As he sits in the room alone for the first several years, he plays the piano and reads voraciously. He learns to speak six different languages and later studies religion and theology. Despite the torturous nature of solitary confinement, the lawyer finds ways to use his time to learn and to grow.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. The word “trifle” refers to something of little value or importance. The lawyer agrees to live in the garden lodge for fifteen years as long as the banker agrees to provide him with any “trifles” he desires like books, wine, or music.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. The word “caprice” refers to the quality of impulsiveness and sudden decision-making. As the banker looks back on his bet made fifteen years prior, he realizes his poor judgement has left him destitute. This line foreshadows how the banker’s decision many years ago causes him to make another rash decision later on in Part II of the story.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. Although the banker’s original bet was set to a five-year span, the lawyer extends it further to a fifteen-year span. His decision to extend the bet and his potential suffering demonstrates his reckless and impulsive nature. Due to this one rash decision, the lawyer must now reside in the banker’s garden lodge for an additional decade.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. The phrase “solitary confinement” refers to the practice of keeping someone isolated in a prison cell. Readers should notice how the initial bet—determining whether the death penalty or life imprisonment is more humane—transforms into a bet about whether the lawyer can survive in solitary confinement. The theoretical discussion thus takes a decidedly pragmatic turn.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. In contrast to the banker, the lawyer is an intelligent young man whose tenacity drives him to pursue the bet. At the start of the story, the lawyer is 25 years old. He is heedless and impatient and wants to prove to the banker that living under any circumstance is better than dying. Readers should notice the lawyer’s behavioral changes as the story progresses.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. The banker is an authoritarian, materially-obsessed businessman who uses his power and wealth to control others. His egotism, combined with his belief that life imprisonment is inferior to capital punishment, drives the plot of the short story forward. As the story unfolds, the banker will forge the bet and use his power and wealth to prove his point.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. The Latin phrase “a priori,” meaning “from the earlier,” is used as an adjective to describe the act of deriving or deducing a conclusion based on previously-held theories. When the banker says the phrase “a priori,” he is stating that since he has never experienced the death penalty or life imprisonment, his judgment is based on theory and not on empirical evidence.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. The term “capital punishment” refers to the legally permitted, state-endorsed practice of killing someone as punishment for a crime. Throughout its history, Russia has had a complicated relationship with capital punishment. Historians date the first documented act of capital punishment to 1398. From then on—during the reigns of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century and Peter the Great in the late 17th and early 18th centuries—capital punishment was used extensively to punish criminals for a variety of illegal acts. Peter the Great’s daughter, the Russian Empress Elizabeth, disapproved of the practice and abolished it in 1754. Later however, the abolishment was appealed and the death penalty continued well into the 20th century. Following the 1917 Russian Revolution in the Soviet Union, shooting criminals was common practice. In 1996, President Boris Yeltsin established a moratorium and in 1999 the Constitutional Court of Russia reaffirmed the moratorium. The last execution in the Russian Federation occurred in 1999 in the Chechen Republic. Currently, capital punishment in Russia is forbidden.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff