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The Bet

The Bet


by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov

Analysis: Tone

Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?

Matter of Fact, Objective, Dry, Unemotional

Say you're writing a piece of fiction in which a guy decides to seal himself up in solitary confinement for fifteen years. What's the first thing you imagine you'll need to do?

If you're like Shmoop, you immediately start wracking your brains to try to figure out how on earth you'll be able to describe what this sad, crazy man must be going through. His feelings, his thoughts, his expectations, what this decision will mean for his family—you know, the general stuff of human life.

But this story skips all of that in favor of a just-the-facts-ma'am approach, even when it does want to register some level of emotions. For example, check out how the prisoner's life is described:

For the first year of his confinement, as far as one could judge from his brief notes, the prisoner suffered severely from loneliness and depression. The sounds of the piano could be heard continually day and night from his lodge. […] In the second year the piano was silent in the lodge, and the prisoner asked only for the classics. In the fifth year music was audible again, and the prisoner asked for wine. Those who watched him through the window said that all that year he spent doing nothing but eating and drinking and lying on his bed, frequently yawning and angrily talking to himself. […] More than once he could be heard crying. (1.15-16)

The stuff of feelings is all there—the guy "suffers from loneliness and depression", he is "heard crying" and "angrily talking to himself." But the calm tone just sucks all the adrenaline and excitement from what could be a very moving bit of narrative.

Not only that, but we are clearly expected not to care about this one way or another, except just to note it as a plot point—check out how the description just skips from year two to year five without so much as a blink. That's three years alone in a room that we just gloss over with a "eh, whatever." You don't get much more matter-of-fact than that.

Why so dry? Because it's not the feelings that matter here. It's the ideas that are front and center.

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