by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov
Two Million Rubles
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
This story raises more Big Questions than you can shake a stick at. Or maybe you really can shake a stick at all of them. Shmoop doesn't know your life.
One of these is the universal and timeless problem of just how much a human life is worth. Is life worth some standard amount, the same across the board no matter what? Or is its value more dependent on circumstances, like, say, the quality of the life we're valuing, or the person to whom the life belongs? Hard to say, but this philosophical quandary comes up in debates about health care, euthanasia, war, abortion—pretty much every hot button issue that has anything to do with people.
In the story, the question is first whether it's better to just get the death penalty right away or to rot in jail until old age. For the banker, this is a non-starter—obviously dying slowly by degrees is way worse than a quick end. For the lawyer, it's also a non-starter—obviously any life at all is better than nothing.
But almost immediately, the question turns to a variation of this big idea—what's worth more, two million rubles or a chunk of someone's life? At first, the banker is sure of one answer to that question:
"Think better of it, young man, while there is still time. To me two millions are a trifle, but you are losing three or four of the best years of your life." (1.12)
But fifteen years later, he comes to a different conclusion:
Fifteen years before, his millions had been beyond his reckoning; now he was afraid to ask himself which were greater, his debts or his assets. […] "Why didn't the man die? He is only forty now. He will take my last penny from me, he will marry, will enjoy life, will gamble on the Exchange; while I shall look at him with envy like a beggar." (2.3)
The shifting value is all a matter of perspective. To a rich young guy, wasting three years in a cell seems loony-tunes. But to a not-so-rich middle-aged man, forty doesn't seem all that old, and the money seems like a pretty sweet deal.
Is the banker right? Does the value of the lawyer's life change throughout the story?