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The Bet

The Bet


by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov

The Lawyer

Character Analysis

A young guest at the party, the lawyer bets that he can spend fifteen years in voluntary solitary confinement to prove that any kind of life is better than death.

If the banker is on the side of government, surveillance, and generally has The Man-like characteristics, then what do we make of the lawyer?

There's basically two ways to go with this one. And honestly? Shmoop's not a psychologist, and we don't even play one on YouTube, but how you feel about the lawyer probably says more about you than about him.

Why, you ask? Well, it's actually intentionally woven into the story itself. After all, we have virtually zero access to the lawyer's thoughts, feelings, or ideas, so everything we can figure out about him has to come from just imposing our own interpretations on his somewhat mysterious and confusing actions.

Okay, maybe we do play shrinks on YouTube.

Option #1: Wise Guy Hermit

Interpretation number one takes this mystery and confusion and runs with it. In this version of what's up with the lawyer, he is basically a modern-day Biblical cave hermit. You know that generic cartoon wise old man that sits up on a secluded mountain and you have to climb and climb and climb to ask him some deep question, to which he says, you tell me? That's what we're talking about here—a guy who voluntarily takes himself out of the world to really get some time to think about things.

After all, when the banker proposes his crazy bet, the lawyer jumps on that thing like it's the last rowboat off the Titanic: "'If you mean that in earnest,' said the young man, 'I'll take the bet, but I would stay not five but fifteen years'" (1.8). What? Who in a million years would take that bet? And who on earth would take it and then increase the difficulty for himself?

Only someone who already has monastic or ascetic tendencies, we say. And of course, a crazed, deeply spiritual hermit is exactly what the lawyer turns into. Check out his conclusions about life at the end of his letter to the banker:

"I despise wisdom and the blessings of this world. It is all worthless, fleeting, illusory, and deceptive, like a mirage. […] I marvel at you who exchange heaven for earth. I don't want to understand you." (2.16-17)

He doesn't just reject the money—he rejects all of human life. Dude's got people problems…

Option #2: He's Gone 'Round the Bend

… Which takes us straight into interpretation number two—dude's straight up crazy. If we examine the evidence again, we get a totally different sense of what the lawyer's driving motivation might actually be. What kind of person would sign up for a fifteen-year term of total isolation? Maybe not the most mentally balanced kind.

But the kicker for this second theory is the lawyer's assertion that by reading a lot of books he's experienced everything that a man ever could:

"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 flung myself into the bottomless pit, performed miracles, slain, burned towns, preached new religions, conquered whole kingdoms. . . . " (2.14)

We hate to break to you, dude, but you have done no such thing. You have—maybe—gotten a vicarious glimpse of what those things might be like. But this conviction that reading about something equals living it? Yeah, get this man to a doctor, stat.