Part II

The old banker remembered all this, and thought:

“To-morrow at twelve o’clock he will regain his freedom. By our agreement I ought to pay him two millions. If I do pay him, it is all over with me: I shall be utterly ruined.”

Fifteen years before, his millions had been beyond his reckoning; now he was afraid to ask himself which were greater, his debts or his assets. Desperate gambling on the Stock Exchange, wild speculation and the excitability which he could not get over even in advancing years, had by degrees led to the decline of his fortune and the proud, fearless, self-confident millionaire had become a banker of middling rank, trembling at every rise and fall in his investments. “Cursed bet!” muttered the old man, clutching his head in despair. “Why didn’t the man die? He is only forty now. He will take my last penny from me, he will marry, will enjoy life, will gamble on the Exchange; while I shall look at him with envy like a beggar, and hear from him every day the same sentence: ‘I am indebted to you for the happiness of my life, let me help you!’ No, it is too much! The one means of being saved from bankruptcy and disgrace is the death of that man!”

It struck three o’clock, the banker listened; everyone was asleep in the house and nothing could be heard outside but the rustling of the chilled trees. Trying to make no noise, he took from a fireproof safe the key of the door which had not been opened for fifteen years, put on his overcoat, and went out of the house.

It was dark and cold in the garden. Rain was falling. A damp cutting wind was racing about the garden, howling and giving the trees no rest. The banker strained his eyes, but could see neither the earth nor the white statues, nor the lodge, nor the trees. Going to the spot where the lodge stood, he twice called the watchman. No answer followed. Evidently the watchman had sought shelter from the weather, and was now asleep somewhere either in the kitchen or in the greenhouse.

“If I had the pluck to carry out my intention,” thought the old man, “suspicion would fall first upon the watchman.”

He felt in the darkness for the steps and the door, and went into the entry of the lodge. Then he groped his way into a little passage and lighted a match. There was not a soul there. There was a bedstead with no bedding on it, and in the corner there was a dark cast-iron stove. The seals on the door leading to the prisoner’s rooms were intact.

When the match went out the old man, trembling with emotion, peeped through the little window. A candle was burning dimly in the prisoner’s room. He was sitting at the table. Nothing could be seen but his back, the hair on his head, and his hands. Open books were lying on the table, on the two easy-chairs, and on the carpet near the table.

Five minutes passed and the prisoner did not once stir. Fifteen years’ imprisonment had taught him to sit still. The banker tapped at the window with his finger, and the prisoner made no movement whatever in response. Then the banker cautiously broke the seals off the door and put the key in the keyhole. The rusty lock gave a grating sound and the door creaked. The banker expected to hear at once footsteps and a cry of astonishment, but three minutes passed and it was as quiet as ever in the room. He made up his mind to go in.

At the table a man unlike ordinary people was sitting motionless. He was a skeleton with the skin drawn tight over his bones, with long curls like a woman’s and a shaggy beard. His face was yellow with an earthy tint in it, his cheeks were hollow, his back long and narrow, and the hand on which his shaggy head was propped was so thin and delicate that it was dreadful to look at it. His hair was already streaked with silver, and seeing his emaciated, aged-looking face, no one would have believed that he was only forty. He was asleep.... In front of his bowed head there lay on the table a sheet of paper on which there was something written in fine handwriting.

“Poor creature!” thought the banker, “he is asleep and most likely dreaming of the millions. And I have only to take this half-dead man, throw him on the bed, stifle him a little with the pillow, and the most conscientious expert would find no sign of a violent death. But let us first read what he has written here....”

The banker took the page from the table and read as follows:

“To-morrow at twelve o’clock I regain my freedom and the right to associate with other men, but before I leave this room and see the sunshine, I think it necessary to say a few words to you. With a clear conscience I tell you, as before God, who beholds me, that I despise freedom and life and health, and all that in your books is called the good things of the world.

“For fifteen years I have been intently studying earthly life. It is true I have not seen the earth nor men, but in your books I have drunk fragrant wine, I have sung songs, I have hunted stags and wild boars in the forests, have loved women.... Beauties as ethereal as clouds, created by the magic of your poets and geniuses, have visited me at night, and have whispered in my ears wonderful tales that have set my brain in a whirl. In your books I have climbed to the peaks of Elburz and Mont Blanc, and from there I have seen the sun rise and have watched it at evening flood the sky, the ocean, and the mountain-tops with gold and crimson. I have watched from there the lightning flashing over my head and cleaving the storm-clouds. I have seen green forests, fields, rivers, lakes, towns. I have heard the singing of the sirens, and the strains of the shepherds’ pipes; I have touched the wings of comely devils who flew down to converse with me of God.... In your books I have flung myself into the bottomless pit, performed miracles, slain, burned towns, preached new religions, conquered whole kingdoms....

“Your books have given me wisdom. All that the unresting thought of man has created in the ages is compressed into a small compass in my brain. I know that I am wiser than all of you.

“And I despise your books, I despise wisdom and the blessings of this world. It is all worthless, fleeting, illusory, and deceptive, like a mirage. You may be proud, wise, and fine, but death will wipe you off the face of the earth as though you were no more than mice burrowing under the floor, and your posterity, your history, your immortal geniuses will burn or freeze together with the earthly globe.

“You have lost your reason and taken the wrong path. You have taken lies for truth, and hideousness for beauty. You would marvel if, owing to strange events of some sorts, frogs and lizards suddenly grew on apple and orange trees instead of fruit, or if roses began to smell like a sweating horse; so I marvel at you who exchange heaven for earth. I don’t want to understand you.

“To prove to you in action how I despise all that you live by, I renounce the two millions of which I once dreamed as of paradise and which now I despise. To deprive myself of the right to the money I shall go out from here five hours before the time fixed, and so break the compact....”

When the banker had read this he laid the page on the table, kissed the strange man on the head, and went out of the lodge, weeping. At no other time, even when he had lost heavily on the Stock Exchange, had he felt so great a contempt for himself. When he got home he lay on his bed, but his tears and emotion kept him for hours from sleeping.

Next morning the watchmen ran in with pale faces, and told him they had seen the man who lived in the lodge climb out of the window into the garden, go to the gate, and disappear. The banker went at once with the servants to the lodge and made sure of the flight of his prisoner. To avoid arousing unnecessary talk, he took from the table the writing in which the millions were renounced, and when he got home locked it up in the fireproof safe.


  1. Chekhov’s stories and plays tend to end on an ambiguous note and provide no moral resolution. “The Bet” is no exception. The lawyer leaves the garden lodge with a greater, more refined understanding of the world and the futility of materiality; the banker ends the story despising himself. Readers never discover the answer to the first question posed—whether capital punishment or life imprisonment is more humane. Instead, they finish the story wondering what its moral lesson is—or whether there even is one. Perhaps the story provides insight on solitary confinement or on the downfalls of materiality. Readers should make sense of the ending as they choose.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. The word “contempt” refers to the feeling of despising someone or something. Here, the banker feels contempt for himself, for almost committing murder and for believing that the lawyer would only be interested in the two million rubles. The banker originally thought solitary confinement would cause the lawyer to break; however, it had the opposite effect and the lawyer came out of the garden lodge more enlightened and wiser than before.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. In a turn that shocks the banker, he discovers that the lawyer no longer cares for the two million rubles. Throughout the story, the banker presumed that the lawyer would welcome the money. However, at the end of the letter, the banker discovers that the lawyer has learned of the emptiness of materialism and has thus decided to forego the prize.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. 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.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. 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.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. Years spent in solitary confinement have allowed the lawyer to read about the world in vivid detail. He has studied the human condition and lived vicariously through the words of Shakespeare, Byron, and others. He has been enlightened by this literature and now disdains human pettiness and material greed.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. 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.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. The Elburz mountain range is located in northern Iran; Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in the French Alps. Throughout his many years reading about the world, he has vicariously traveled to these peaks.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. Again, the banker makes an assumption about what the lawyer is thinking. He imagines that the lawyer is sleeping soundly because he is “dreaming of the millions.” However, as he delves further into the letter and discovers the lawyer’s true thoughts, his assumptions are shattered.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. 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.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. 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.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. 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.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. The banker has not seen the lawyer for almost fifteen years. His assumption—that the lawyer will walk away from solitary confinement only to gamble all of his money on the stock exchange—says more about the banker than the lawyer. It highlights his priorities and how he is still money-hungry and materialistic after all these years.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. The word “reckoning” refers to the process of calculating something. At the time the bet was made, the banker was wealthy beyond comprehension. However, fifteen years later, he has lost all of his money to “desperate gambling on the Stock Exchange.” Now that he has lost all of his money, he is no longer as powerful or authoritarian as before. Instead, he has become insecure and fearful, and he will go to any length to avoid repaying the bet.

    — Tess, Owl Eyes Staff