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Themes

"The Bet" might not actually have anything to say about the death penalty, but it can certainly be read as an experiment in solitary confinement. Sure, most prisoners are fairly deprived, but how can you figure out the effects of total isolation, rather than plain old confinement? Here, a prisoner has all the physical and intellectual comforts that he could want, but he's cut off from any and all human contact. What follows is the psychological transformation of an already slightly unbalanced man into a being that loses all touch with his own humanity. Yikes.

Questions About Isolation

  1. What does the lawyer mean when he says "desires are the worst foes of the prisoner" (1.15)? What's wrong with having desires, hopes, and dreams in confinement?
  2. The banker spies on the prisoner through the little window. The lawyer asks for the guns to be fired if his multilingual note is correct. Do either of these things break the rules of the isolation bet? Why or why not?
  3. Does the lawyer feel like he is isolated, or do the books seem to give him some sort of companionship? Whom is he arguing with when he is seen to be arguing with himself in his little room? 
  4. What effect does the isolation have on the lawyer? On the banker? Each man is driven to extremes (the banker to murder, the lawyer to rejecting the world). Is it because of loneliness?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

The story shows that isolation is the one surefire way to get someone to shed most of their humanity.

True isolation—no books—would have actually been better for the lawyer in the long run. He would have missed and sought out human companionship instead of just rejecting the world outright. See? Books are bad news.

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