Even back in his own time everyone pretty much agreed that Chekhov was a super awesome writer. But you know what a lot of his critics got on his case about? The fact that he refused to spell out some kind of moral lessons in his stories, which is something that pretty much every other writer was doing at the time.
But Chekhov just one hundred percent, flat out rejected the idea that an author has to put some kind of judgment into his work, or to teach the reader how to act or how not to act, or to point fingers at his characters and identify the good guys and the bad guys. And since that's the traditional function of the ending—lollipops for the good, dunce caps for the bad, and a high and mighty feeling for the reader—in Chekhov's stories, the ending often has an uncomfortable feeling to it.
In the case of this story, for example, it's hard to know how to react to what happens in the last few paragraphs. The action itself is perfectly clear. Moved by the lawyer's letter, the banker kisses the prisoner and leaves to go home, feel bad about himself, and have a good cry. Meanwhile, the lawyer sneaks out of the room early. Finally, the banker takes the letter that rejects that money and hides it away in his safe as evidence.
So what's it all mean? Here are some possibilities:
The first possibility is that the banker has learned a valuable lesson about not being a huge jerk. There he was all set to kill the guy, when all along the lawyer had no interest in his money at all. So the reason he feels bad and cries is that he suddenly sees that he's been way too obsessed with money. Which is fine, except for this tiny catch: has he really changed all that much if he still wants to protect the letter (and with it, his two million rubles)?
Possibility number two is that the banker cries from plain old relief. He's just so psyched he doesn't have to kill anyone and still gets to keep his money and everything is hunky-dory again. Yay. This version fits with that last detail about the letter and the safe…
… But what about the part where the banker feels so terrible about himself? Why would that be?
Maybe the banker isn't really who we should be thinking about anyway. Possibility three involves the other guy. How come we don't find out exactly what is going to happen to the lawyer? Does he leave the room and go to a life of asceticism in some monastery somewhere? Or is he going to kill himself as quickly as possible? The whole I-reject-the-world business certainly could go either way, no?
So, what do you think—which is the most plausible explanation of the ending? Why?