Did people write short fiction before Anton Chekhov? Sure, of course. But take it from us—without his revolutionary work, the short story as a literary genre would not exist today. Oh yeah, baby, we're all about the grandiose statements up in here.
Chekhov became the father of the modern short story because of a key secret weapon. He wasn't just a writer, but in fact was also a full-time practicing doctor, the smarty-pants. Why would being a doctor be the secret ingredient to his special writing sauce? Because Chekhov brought the same kind of detached, objective, non-judgmental flavor to his fiction that he used when trying to get the bottom of his patients' problems.
By taking out all the authorial heavy-handedness that was all the rage with his fellow 19th-century realists (check out the moralizing and tiresome narrators in Dickens, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, for examples), Chekhov made the short story a totally distinct thing from the novel. Instead of being shown examples of what to do and what not to do, Chekhov's readers got totally unbiased, straight-up slices of life instead. No pointing out good guys and bad guys, no overbearing voice laying out the meaning of everything. Instead? Just smooth and laconic narration that would leave more questions than answers.
And so, in 1889, he wrote "The Bet," a story about a banker and a lawyer who make a totally loopy wager—whether one of them could stay in solitary confinement for fifteen years in exchange for two million rubles. We won't say any more but… there is a twist ending. It's a super short, crazy deep little number that's all about the simple things. You know, life, death, consciousness, freedom, and all that jazz? No biggie, just the most pressing and least understood philosophical questions of all time.
Let's do this.
Some stories you care about because they hit close to home. You see yourself in the characters, you have a that-coulda-been-me moment—and boom, you've got yourself a genuine state of the art catharsis.
But stories like this one? Well, they're not about the characters—that's for sure. The dudes in "The Bet" don't do much to distinguish themselves. And they can kind of be jerks, to be honest. Still, you care about this story and others like it because they pose the big questions that don't pop up too much organically in real life, but are so, so important to the way we live, think, and act.
After all, when's the last time you thought long and hard about the difference between the death penalty and life in prison, without just dismissing the question with some knee-jerk response? When's the last time you wondered just what it means to be a human being, and how much of our humanity comes from belonging to the community of other human beings? Oh, and just where is the line between rugged individualism and crazy isolationism? We're betting that one hasn't kept you up all night in quite a while.
But let's be honest. It's pretty crucial to think about these things to be a fully functioning and participatory person in the world. And that's why we so deeply value the stories that stir up our little gray cells to consider all those big ideas about life, the universe, and everything.
Go ahead and geek out, big time. This site has links to bios, online texts of his plays and his other stories, and a bunch of critical essays about his work.
Here's the text of the short story itself so you can read it on the go.
This awesome episode of The Twilight Zone was based on "The Bet." In this case, the bet is that a man won't be able to not speak for an entire year. And the twist? The guy who bets against him can't pay up, but then it turns out that the guy was keeping silent because he'd had his vocal chords severed and now will never be able to speak again.
Remember the good old days when folks wrote letters? Chekhov was no exception, and he was a pretty good epistler, if we may say so.
Hear it Here
If you're too lazy to read this short short aloud to yourself, maybe you could take a listen to these recordings.
The Bearded Wonder
The spectacles ain't so bad, either.