The setup is pretty much just the argument at the party—what's better, the death penalty or life imprisonment? There are many ways to think about this, of course, and the guests offer up some the possible questions. For example, which one's more moral for a government to do? Or, say, what would a person be more apt to tolerate? Or, which is less painful?
But instead of going with any of these, the banker host and the lawyer guest really get personal, which brings us to…
The lawyer agrees to be locked up for fifteen years (even though the banker's initial ante was only five years), and the banker puts up two million rubles. Who will win the bet? For a while, looks like it'll be the banker since the lawyer is all miserable in his little guest house, asking for happy books and playing sad music to himself. Ace of Base, anyone?
The longer the lawyer stays, the more it looks like he'll be the winner. He turns to really serious study—languages, religion, science—and seems pretty okay in his makeshift prison. It's not like he's ever gonna run out of books.
Meanwhile, the banker loses his fortune and starts to freak out about coughing up the two million. Soon enough he decides to murder the lawyer (hello, bad idea). But just as he is about to do it, he finds a letter in which the lawyer says that he rejects the money—along with the rest of the material world. He's really not a material girl, you see.
Now that's a twist.
The banker is relieved not to have to kill anyone. The prison warden later reports that the lawyer sneaked out of the guest house five hours before the fifteen years was up to forfeit the money, which gears us up for the quiet finale.
The banker takes the lawyer's letter, which proves that he rejected the money, and stashes it away in his safe. In case anyone comes asking questions later.