The Bet Short Story Summary
“The Bet” proves that if a person achieved the highest wisdom he wouldn’t care about money or material things at all. He would be like Buddha or Jesus, both of whom owned nothing and wanted nothing. This moral seems to be enhanced by the fact that the banker, whose whole life is devoted to handling money and accumulating wealth, is not happy or enviable but has deteriorated morally over the years.
When it comes time for him to pay the two million roubles, he is so attached to his dwindling capital that he is actually contemplating murdering the prisoner to get out of paying him for enduring fifteen years of solitary confinement. The story is told from the banker’s point of view, so he may not realize how low he has sunk in that period of time, even though he was rich and had complete freedom.
Desperate gambling on the Stock Exchange, wild speculation and the excitability which he could not get over even in advancing years, had by degrees led to the decline of his fortune and the proud, fearless, self-confident millionaire had become a banker of middling rank, trembling at every rise and fall in his investments. “Cursed bet!” muttered the old man, clutching his head in despair. “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, and hear from him every day the same sentence: ‘I am indebted to you for the happiness of my life, let me help you!’ No, it is too much! The one means of being saved from bankruptcy and disgrace is the death of that man!”
Not only is the banker seriously thinking of killing his prisoner, but he is actually considering having the watchman implicated in the crime and possibly executed for it or sent to Siberia.
“If I had the pluck to carry out my intention,” thought the old man, “suspicion would fall first upon the watchman.”
Fortunately for the banker, he finds a note describing what his prisoner has learned in studying books in solitary confinement, as well as what conclusions he has arrived at through his own meditations. Part of the note contains this indictment:
“You have lost your reason and taken the wrong path. You have taken lies for truth, and hideousness for beauty.”
The most important part of the note, as far as the banker is concerned, comes at the end:
“To prove to you in action how I despise all that you live by, I renounce the two million of which I once dreamed as of paradise and which I now despise. To deprive myself of the right to the money I shall go out from here five hours before the time fixed, and so break the compact …”
A complementary moral to the principal moral regarding the vanity of materialism is that life imprisonment is a more humane form of punishment than the death sentence. It was the young lawyer who argued in favor of life imprisonment fifteen years earlier and the banker who said:
“I don’t agree with you. . . . I have not tried either the death penalry or imprisonment for life, but if one may judge a priori, the death penalty is more moral and more humane than imprisonment for life.”
The lawyer has not only proved that he could endure fifteen years of solitary confinement, but he has proved that life imprisonment is indeed more humane because it permits study and meditation, thereby enabling at least some criminals to develop completely new characters.