by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov
The Bet Theme of Wisdom and Knowledge
The final twist in "The Bet" hinges on the idea that the lawyer took all the knowledge he could get from the many, many books he read in the prison, and turned it into wisdom. In other words, he claims that the second-hand info he gets from reading is pretty much the same thing as lived experience, so he's been there, done all of that. But he's not done. He also relies on this version of experience to decide that… experience kind of sucks. What hangs in the balance of this weird transformation is whether the reader buys it—which means we've just met a modern-day ascetic—or doesn't—which means that solitary confinement has robbed this sad man of his humanity. It's up to you, Shmoopers.
Questions About Wisdom and Knowledge
- Do you think the lawyer actually understands the books he's reading? Is it possible to fully get what someone else is describing if you don't have any life experience to connect it to? In the last two years the lawyer reads a little bit of everything. Why is this? Is he double-checking that his religious conclusions are correct? Or is he just trying to get as much experience as possible?
- The only way anyone knows anything about what the lawyer is going through is by trying to interpret his movements through the little prison cell window. How much can we trust these interpretations? Do we know anything about the lawyer's mindset before reading his letter? Why does the story make him such a mystery?
- One of the lawyer's arguments for how other people have lost sight of what's important is to say that they "would marvel if, owing to strange events of some sorts, frogs and lizards suddenly grew on apple and orange trees instead of fruit" (2.17). But isn't it totally legit to find a sudden random change like that fascinating? What does the lawyer mean?
Chew on This
The mad scramble for random books in the last years of his confinement shows that the lawyer is trying to find a way to hang on to some part of the material world before totally giving himself over to his newfound belief system.
The main point of the story is that knowledge cannot be separated from experience, and that the world cannot be understood by someone not actually living in it.