by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov
The Bet Theme of Sacrifice
As soon as one of the party people argues that a government that can't restore human life shouldn't have the right to take it away, well, we know that the theme of sacrifice is going to be important in "The Bet." Sacrifice turns out to be the most plausible way for the banker to view the actions of the lawyer—and for the lawyer himself to describe his own reaction to his voluntary imprisonment. He agrees to throw a part of his life away, to sacrifice his connection to the rest of humanity in order to find some other level of existence. But the story refuses to answer the obvious question—does he succeed?
Questions About Sacrifice
- Why do you think the lawyer takes the bet? What do you think this says about this life? Why does he raise the term from five years to fifteen without asking for more money from the banker?
- Does it make sense that the government should only be able to take away what it can give back? Would this apply to putting people in prison—after all, the government wouldn't be able to give someone that lost time back (as those who are exonerated after wrongful convictions know all too well)?
- The lawyer claims to reject the world and everything it has to offer. But in order for it to be a sacrifice, doesn't he have to have those things first before giving them up? Is he really giving anything up? Or has he just gotten so used to his imprisonment that he wants to hang on to what he knows?
- Why does the banker feel contempt for himself after reading the letter? Is he moved by the idea of a big sacrifice or just relieved that the sacrifice won't have to be his?
Chew on This
The only person who is truly facing a great sacrifice in the story is the banker, for whom the two million large has come to mean the difference between being successful and being a complete failure.
The lawyer's final rejection of the world is totally of a piece with his adding an extra ten years to his sentence, and both sacrifices mark him as a new kind of spiritual hermit.