"The Bet" by Anton Chekhov
At a dinner party in the beginning of this story, an old banker and a young lawyer argue over whether or not "capital punishment and life imprisonment are equally immoral." To determine the truth in this matter they decide to make a bet, agreeing that the Lawyer will live without human contact for fifteen years, and in return, the Banker will pay him 2 million dollars. After providing the Lawyer with a cell, innumerable books, and other comforts for fifteen years, the Banker realizes he is about to lose the bet. Facing bankruptcy and humiliation, he decides to kill the Lawyer. The Banker is stunned when he learns that minutes before he would have received millions, the Lawyer renounced his prize and abandons civilization.
This story addresses
- capital punishment,
To encourage students to examine
- examples of inappropriate feelings and desires
- the consequences of gambling
- the value of self-respect
- appropriate methods of resolving internal and external conflicts
Read the story aloud. Pause to identify inappropriate emotions that result in inappropriate actions. Have students suggest the possible consequences of each. After the reading, ask students to identify alternative reactions that may have resulted in a more favorable outcome.
Use the following questions as springboards to solutions:
- What emotions and desires motivate the Lawyer and the Banker to make such a bet? What does engaging in such a bet reveal about each of the characters? Are these appropriate emotions and desires? Why or why not?
- Do these characters respect themselves? Why or why not?
- Do the Banker and the Lawyer respect each other? Why or why not?
- Could the bet have led to a positive outcome?
- What are the drawbacks of gambling in general? Are there appropriate forms of gambling?
- During his confinement, the Lawyer had the opportunity to read and learn about the world. Meanwhile, the Banker had the opportunity to experience many pleasures in the world. In the end, both were driven to desperation. One man was willing to commit murder, the other despised "all the blessings of the world." What actions could either of these characters taken that would have helped them avoid this outcome?
- Could anyone else in the story have taken an action that would have prevented this outcome?
Ask student pairs to share experiences. Have them focus on events that forced them to reevaluate their perspective. Have pairs work to identify the causes for the misperception. Ask them to evaluate the resulting "new" perception. For instance, a student's original perception may have been that there was no such thing as prejudice. Then the student moved to a new neighborhood where he/she became a minority. The student realized the inaccuracy of the original perception when he/she became a victim of prejudice.
Lottery: Winner or Loser
Formal debate is one method for determining the policies which deal with difficult political issues such as criminal justice, education, and taxes. In groups of four or more, have students determine whether or not the state governments should continue to run a lottery. Have half the group gather and arrange evidence in support of the lottery and the other half of the group gather and arrange evidence against it. Remind students to discuss possible counter arguments also. Finally, have students present their debates and evaluate individual performances based on organization, evidence, and presentation.
Memories of the Rich and Infamous
In pairs, have students record a radio interview between the Banker and an investigative journalist. The interview should be set in the year 1905, twenty years after the Lawyer vanished from his cell. The interview should contain a summary of the events of the story and the Banker's reflections on the lessons of these events. Encourage students to develop questions and answers that illustrate the Banker's thinking about the moral issues involved in the bet.
Real World Connection
Have students research supreme court rulings regarding capital punishment. Then have them select a case and identify the arguments for and against it by creating a brief outline of the main points. Encourage students to use a dictionary or a thesaurus to define unfamiliar words. Have students share their findings in small groups.