The Stories in my Life: Anton Chekhov's The Bet is essential reading in a time of lockdowns and self-isolation
Chekhov's short story, The Bet, is a meditation on the nature of isolation, a thought-provoking account of a journey into solitude and the self
There are stories, read long ago, which live on in the backrooms of the mind, becoming perennial furnishings of our mental lives, refusing to fade even after the passage of decades. In this column, every month, I shall share one such story with you, a story which has nourished my inner life and which deserves to be unpacked and aired in the hope that it will bring you the same pleasure and insight that it brought me.
In this time of lockdowns, what better story to remember than Chekhov’s remarkable tale ‘The Bet’? ‘The Bet’ is so much more than a story: It is a meditation on the nature of isolation, a thought-provoking account of a journey into solitude and the self.
A strange bet is laid between a rich banker and a young lawyer at a party thrown by the former and attended by many intellectuals and journalists. Among the many topics of conversation is a discussion on the relative propriety of capital punishment or imprisonment for life. The usual arguments are put forward, ethical and religious. The host is of the view that dying at an executioner’s hands is the more merciful fate, rather than dying by slow degrees for a protracted length of time. A young guest begs to differ, asserting that life under any conditions is preferable, even a life of captivity.
To this the host scoffingly observes that no one can endure captivity for long, least of all his young critic who, he confidently predicts, was incapable of staying in captivity longer than five years and that he was prepared to stake two millions to prove his point. The young man, inflamed, declares that he is quite prepared to pick up the wager and stay not five but 15 years in solitary confinement. One thing leads to another and a contract is drawn up between the two, stipulating in great detail the terms and conditions of the agreement.
Accordingly, the young lawyer was housed in the banker’s garden-house. By the terms of the contract he was to speak to no one and not set foot out of his room for 15 years. He was to be supplied with all essential things, also any number of books, a piano, wine and tobacco. But he was to receive no letters, newspapers or visitors. In fact he was to forfeit the sound of human voices altogether. He was permitted to pass little notes through a window asking for books, music, wine or anything else that was essential. The duration of this voluntary confinement was from 12 o’clock of 14 November 1870, till 12 o’clock of 14 November 1885. Were he to successfully complete this period in isolation he would be entitled to the two millions staked. But should he cut short this period by the tiniest margin of time, he would forego the fortune.
The banker was certain that the young man would sooner or later break but he had not reckoned with his opponent’s will-power. Initially, during the first year, the young man showed signs of depression and loneliness. He read light, entertaining books, played the piano for long stretches of time, refused both wine and tobacco, saying that wine stimulated desire and tobacco smoke poisoned the air. The second year the piano went silent and the voluntary prisoner asked for classics to read. By the fifth year the piano- playing resumed and wine was sent for. Then for some time he spent his time just eating, drinking, sleeping, or holding long , angry conversations with himself. Sometimes he wept. He sat up nights, writing extensively, only to tear it all up and throw it away the next morning. By the sixth year he had immersed himself in studying languages, philosophy and history.
In four years he read 600 books. He learnt six languages and wrote a letter to his host in all six, requesting that the letter be shown to experts and if found to be correct in every particular, a gun should be fired in the garden to convey his success to him. Two gun shots were heard. By the tenth year, however, the prisoner gave up his subjects of study and turned his attention to the New Testament and sat over it in deep concentration. This was followed by a study of theology and religions. When only two more years remained of his captivity it was noticed that he was reading randomly — poetry, medicine, chemistry, philosophy. “He read as though he were swimming in the sea among broken pieces of wreckage, and in his desire to save his life was eagerly grasping one piece after another.”
By now the host was in some panic. During this long period his own fortunes had declined and his financial condition was much reduced. Two millions would ruin him completely, he speculated fearfully, and from the look of it, he would have to pay them. He imagined the young lawyer, who at the close of 15 years would still be only 40, enjoying his money, and himself, so much older, reduced to penury. There was only one way out and that was to kill his captive guest, and with this plan he made his way to the garden-house one winter night, unlocked the door and crept in. The watchman was apparently absent, possibly because of the bitter cold, and this fact only made his work easier, he thought, since the watchman could be blamed for the murder.
He entered the room. A man, thin as a skeleton, his skin gone parchment-yellow, his hair long and tangled, falling to his waist, sat, fallen forward on a table covered with books. There were books everywhere, even on the floor. The man had penned a letter to his host and it lay on the table. He himself was in a deep sleep. By the light of the candle, the host read the letter and was astounded.
For the prisoner had written that although in another 24 hours he would be entitled to freedom, he had grown to despise the world and the things that people valued. In flowing prose he narrated how through reading his mind had flown out of his physical body, travelled the universe, experienced modes of being beyond ordinary possibility, loved more fully, lived more vividly than he might have done had he been free. He had experienced the wisdom of the ages but he had also ultimately seen through the trappings of the world-show. His words were those of a sage: ‘Everything is void, frail, visionary and delusive as a mirage. Though you be proud and wise and beautiful yet will death wipe you from the face of the earth like the mice underground; and your posterity, history, and the immortality of your men of genius will be frozen slag, burnt down together with the terrestrial globe.’
Such a sage had now no use for either money or the company of men. And to prove his contempt for men and money he had written that he was going to deliberately breach the agreement and escape five minutes before the hour of his release struck.
The banker was not merely relieved but awe-struck. He took the letter, kissed the head of the sleeping man and left as quietly as he had come. The next day, five minutes before the hour, the watchman reported, the captive emerged out of the window of his cell and walked away through the open gates.
This is a story that doesn’t go away. Look it up.
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