by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov
The host of the party where the death penalty vs. life imprisonment debate happens, the banker bets the lawyer two million dollars to stay in solitary confinement for fifteen years.
Maybe it's just us, but it seems pretty clear that any story about two people making some kind of complicated and crazy bet would be at least somewhat about a power struggle between them. Haven't we all seen She's All That? How else could you get a nice bit of dramatic action going if not for some competition, right? Only in this case, it's all about a moral debate, rather than Rachael Leigh Cook. Hey, close enough.
Sure enough, as soon as the banker and the lawyer are introduced they seem ready to claw each other's faces off. Doesn't it kind of make you wonder why on earth the banker would have invited someone over that he hates so much? It might well be spite that makes the lawyer up the bet to fifteen years (against himself, no less). And it's probably also spite that makes the banker not just get "delighted" at the "senseless bet" but also "make fun of the young man" as the party goes on (1.11). So if the whole thing is a power struggle between the two of them, what can we make of what the banker represents?
First, let's take a look at his personality. We don't have a ton of insight into it, but there are a few pretty giant honking clues that he's not the nicest guy in town. No, he's the kind of guy who would let the person he is betting against raise his own stakes (from five years to fifteen years) without anteing up any extra dough. He is also the kind of guy who would mock someone that he plans on locking up just to prove a point—and the kind of guy who would take a hypothetical argument and immediately turn it into a demand for physical proof. Basically, he likes to be in a position of authority and likes to wield power over others, especially those who happen to disagree with him.
Second, let's check out his more symbolic appearance in the story. We'll shift from thinking about the banker as a person, and instead try to see him as a category.
Even though Chekhov doesn't give us too many clues (hey, it's a short, short story), if we try to just pick out what we can from the sparse description, we get the sense that the banker is basically The Man. Why do we say that? Well, for one thing, he stands for money—he's described as having "millions beyond his reckoning", so much money that to him "two millions are a trifle" (2.11-12). For another, the banker is also on the side of pleasure, hedonism, and material goods. After all, he's the one giving the party, and he clearly has some kind of super fancy estate with a guesthouse he can use as a prison for fifteen years. Ah, the good life.
Also, in the teeny tiny world of the story, he is the agent of governmental or authoritarian control. He's a walking, talking representation of the idea that humans can impose rules and power on other humans. Not only is he the lawyer's jailer, not only does he hire a guard to keep watch outside the guest house prison, not only does he constantly keep tabs on everything the lawyer is doing by watching him Big Brother-style (not the TV show, but the book—check out Orwell's 1984 to learn about the original Big Brother)—but also he is the only one shown arguing against the one random guest who says that "the State is not God" and shouldn't have the right to execute people (1.3). Don't forget that when we get to the part where the banker—ahem—decides to execute the lawyer. He doesn't feel any moral qualms about it, almost as if he just feels like he has the authority to do that kind of thing. Which brings us back to the idea that the banker functions like "the State."The Banker's Timeline