Anton Chekhov’s “The Bet”

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In the nearly four years that I’ve been doing my one short story per week reading project, a handful of authors have emerged who can always be counted on to deliver the goods. I would count Anton Chekhov (above) among these select few, so I was happy to see that, when I drew the three of clubs, I had assigned it to his famous story, “The Bet.” (My roster of stories may be found here ) I also found it amusing that, after blogging last week about the concept of “Chekhov’s Gun,” the author immediately presented himself as my next “luck of the draw” selection.

During a party at the house of a banker, in a drawing room conversation, a debate arises regarding capital punishment. One argues that it is immoral and has no place in a Christian Nation, the host disagrees, however, saying “…in my opinion capital punishment is more moral and more humane than imprisonment. Execution kills instantly, life-imprisonment kills by degree. Who is the more humane executioner, one who kills you in a few seconds or one who draws the life out of you incessantly for years?”

A brash young lawyer in attendance argues that life-imprisonment is by far more preferable, saying “Capital punishment and life-imprisonment are equally immoral; but if I were offered the choice between them, I would certainly choose the second. It’s better to live somehow than not to live at all.”

Much debate takes place, and an outrageous bet is the fallout. The banker puts up “two millions” against the young lawyer’s boast that he could stay willingly imprisoned for fifteen years. Terms and rules are set and the clock begins ticking on November 14, 1870…

The story is so short, I’ll leave it for you to read yourself if interested. It may be found online at http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/Bet.shtml

The premise for this story may seem familiar to some readers. If so, it might be because of a “classic” episode of the TV series, “The Twilight Zone.” Rod Serling shifts the location and changes some of the characters, the purpose for the bet, and many of the details, but it’s still an effective treatment and does, I believe, capture the “spirit” of Chekhov’s story. It’s actually available on YouTube. Here’s a link to part 1:

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Dale at Mirror with Clouds has also posted about this story as part of Deal Me In 2014, making it the fourth “twin” our group has spawned this year. His post may be found here

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16 Comments

  1. Dee said,

    July 27, 2014 at 2:35 pm

    Hi Jay ….. You are so right about Chekhov!
    You would like the short story about him written by Raymond Carver – “The Errand” …… It may take some time, but I’d love to hear what you think ….
    Santa Fe Dee

    Like

    • Jay said,

      July 28, 2014 at 7:16 am

      Hi Dee!
      Thanks for the heads up on that Carver story. I’ll look for it. 🙂
      -Jay

      Like

  2. Randall said,

    July 27, 2014 at 2:38 pm

    I believe Mr. Chekhov may be stalking you. You’d better be careful — I hear he has a gun. 🙂

    Seriously, this sounds like a great story and one which I definitely want to read. I am unfamiliar with that particular episode of the Twilight Zone as well, so double thanks for the review!

    Like

    • Jay said,

      July 28, 2014 at 7:19 am

      Haha – nice! I need to have a mini-project for Chekhov some month. Yeah, I like that idea.

      The actor pictured on the right of the TZ pic might be recognizable to Star Trek fans as well. He played “Parmen” in the (somewhat forgettable) episode “Plato’s Stepchildren.”

      Like

  3. Bellezza said,

    July 28, 2014 at 8:28 am

    I realize it’s July, and the year half over, but I would like to participate in your short story “adventures”. I made a list for each of the 52 cards last night; they mainly fall into stories from these authors (as I own their collections): Annie Proulx, Edith Pearlman, Raymond Carver and of course, Haruki Murakmi. May I join in as the week sees fit even though I’m late to the party?

    Like

    • Jay said,

      July 28, 2014 at 12:40 pm

      Of course! Late-joining is not only allowed but ENCOURAGED. 🙂 you might consider doing what one participant had suggested earlier: just go at the story per week pace the rest of the year, then “re-load” the cards used from your deck to have a full roster at the beginning of next year (if you decide to continue, that is).

      Keep in mind you don’t have to write a post about every story either (I’d love to read about every story participants read, but acknowledge that may be unreasonable to expect).

      Would love to see your roster of stories too. I’ll keep an eye out for it, or you can let me know when/if you post it and I can share it with the group. Making the list is a big part of the fun for me. 🙂

      I’ll reciprocate by committing to joining your read-along of the new Murakami book next month too. I know, I know. That’s not exactly a big personal sacrifice for me since I love Murakami. 🙂

      Like

      • Bellezza said,

        July 28, 2014 at 7:19 pm

        Well, that’s a win-win situation: I read short stories for your challenge, you join in the Murakami read along. I benefit from your point of view in both situations. I’ll do as you suggest, read a story a week from the rather pathetic list I put together last night, then be on the look-out for stories I want to insert for next year. I’ll publish the tentative list this week in my blog. By the way, did you see the link to Murakami’s story “Yesterday” in the New York Times? It’s on my blog, sorry I don’t have it handy to insert here, and it was a great story for free. Hope it still is!

        Like

        • Jay said,

          July 28, 2014 at 8:10 pm

          Great! I just preordered the Murakami book and can’t wait for it to be delivered! I’m pleased to see Philip Gabriel is the translator too. He didn’t translate all of the stories in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, but he did translate my four favorites. This is so exciting! 🙂

          Thanks for the tip regarding “Yesterday.” I’ll look for it.

          Like

  4. Paula Cappa said,

    July 28, 2014 at 8:41 am

    Really enjoyed reading this story, Jay. I actually just read Chekhov’s The Black Monk. His stories are always quite satisfying. Chekhov’s characters are so deep!

    Like

    • Jay said,

      July 28, 2014 at 12:45 pm

      The Black Monk is one of my all-time favorite short stories. I’ve revisited it many times over the years. (If you’ve gotta know the truth, when I was younger I think that, like Kovrin, I suffered from a “mania of greatness” that led to me identifying with that character; I’ve long since been disabused of that notion, however!)

      What I really liked about The Bet, which I didn’t go into in my post, was the progression of what the lawyer read and studied during his confinement, very interesting choices!

      Like

  5. Jason M. said,

    July 28, 2014 at 9:35 am

    I’m familiar with this story through the “Twilight Zone” episode (most noteworthy for being one of TZ’s few non-sci-fi/fantasy stories). I was not, interestingly, familiar with the story. The story’s ending is far more shattering than the TZ ending, in a way I wasn’t expecting. Although, for TZ purposes, I can see why Rod Serling changed the ending…

    Like

    • Jay said,

      July 28, 2014 at 12:58 pm

      Thanks for the comment,. and I hadn’t thought about it being a non-sci-fi/fantasy part of the TZ catalog. It’s always been one of my favorites nontheless.

      I think both the story and the episode are quite effectively done.

      I have another Twilight Zone-related entry in my Deal Me In project this year. It hasn’t come up in the draw yet, but Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life” is a story I’m looking forward to reading for the first time.

      Like

      • Jason M. said,

        July 29, 2014 at 12:38 pm

        Ooh, that would give you a TZ trifecta (including “The Howling Man”). IN terms of other stories that became Zone episodes, I’m also very fond of Richard Matheson’s “Disappearing Act” (one of the great last lines in a short story, albeit not quite as literary as Chekov) and “We Have What You Need” (by a pseudonym named Lewis Padgett), which is far more extraordinary than the TZ episode it inspired. Anyway, keep up the great work here!

        Like

        • Jay said,

          July 30, 2014 at 7:55 am

          Thank! I haven’t read “Disappearing Act” before. I did discover in my ‘research’ just now that there is an anthology of stories (“Twilight Zone: the Original Stories”) that is edited by Matheson and should be a must own for me.

          I actually read a short story by Matheson’s son, Richard Christian Matheson a couple years back which was very good too. https://bibliophilica.wordpress.com/2012/06/28/2181/

          Like

  6. Dale said,

    July 28, 2014 at 7:39 pm

    Jay,
    I didn’t know this was a Twilight Zone episode, either. Thanks for the info. I figured you would probably like this story. I kept thinking about the ending for a long time.
    -Dale

    Like

    • Jay said,

      July 28, 2014 at 8:12 pm

      I found it fascinating how the prisoner chose to spend his time, and the progression of his interests and requests for reading material.

      Like


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