The Bet by Anton Chekhov Study Guide

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The Bet by Anton Chekhov Study Guide


MEET THE WRITER

Anton Chekhov (1860–1904)
Shortly before his death, Chekhov joked that people would read his work for only seven more years. A century later, his brilliant short stories and plays show no signs of being forgotten.


A Doctor and Writer
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born in the seaport town of Taganrog in the south of Russia. When he was sixteen, his father went bankrupt and fled with the rest of the family to Moscow to avoid a prison sentence. Left behind as a “hostage” to his father’s creditors, Chekhov tutored the creditor’s son at a cheap rate, finished school, and went to Moscow to study medicine on a scholarship. To support himself and his family, who were living in a slum, Chekhov wrote comic stories to sell to periodicals. Comic stories soon gave way to more serious pieces, in which, as Chekhov said, questions were asked but not answered.

Studying medicine greatly benefited the young writer. As a doctor, Chekhov became acquainted with hundreds of ordinary people. He continued to write while practicing medicine and gave up his full-time practice only when it took too much time away from his writing.

Humanity, Reason, and Generosity
It was not until the last years of his brief life that Chekhov achieved some affluence. He moved his parents and sister to a large country estate, where he organized famine relief, fought cholera epidemics, and treated poor patients free of charge. Although the theme of many of his works is alienation, Chekhov’s real-life activities demonstrate that humanity, reason, and generosity were among his highest values.

His finest stories were all written in the 1890s, and his four great plays, The Sea Gull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1897), Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904), were written while he was fatally ill with tuberculosis. In 1901 he married the actress who played the lead role in The Sea Gull, but the couple spent their honeymoon in a sanitarium. Three years later Chekhov died at the age of forty-four, still at the height of his creativity.

Vocabulary

frivolous (FRIHV uh luhs) adj.: light-minded; lacking seriousness. The frivolous banker made a large bet without thinking. 

compulsory (kuhm PUHL suhr ee) adj.: required; enforced. The banker argues that voluntary confinement is more unbearable than compulsory imprisonment. 

caprice (kuh PREES) n.: sudden notion or desire. The banker realizes that the bet was the result of unwise caprice. 

zealously (ZEHL uhs lee) adv.: fervently; devotedly. The prisoner spends his time zealously studying books and languages. 

indiscriminately (ihn dihs KRIHM uh niht lee) adv.: without making careful distinctions; randomly. The lawyer reads indiscriminately, diving into any book he can get. 

ethereal (ih THIHR ee uhl) adj.: light and delicate; unearthly. After reading the poems, the lawyer was visited by ethereal visions. 

renounce (rih NOWNS) v.: formally give up; reject. The lawyer decides to renounce his claim to the money.

Literary Focus

Theme 
The truth or insight about human life revealed in a story is its theme. For example, the theme of a story about growing up might be that disillusionment is inherently part of the maturation process. To identify theme, the reader must consider all of a story’s elements, and then infer the truths or insights the story reveals. The theme is often illuminated at the end of the story in the main character’s discovery about life. Identifying themes requires a tolerance for ambiguity, especially in open-ended stories like “The Bet,” which raises more questions than it answers.

Reading Focus

Making Predictions 
A prediction is a special kind of inference, or educated guess, about what will happen next. Some predictions turn out to be inaccurate, and modifying them is an essential—and enjoyable—part of active reading. Because Chekhov begins this story with a debate about capital punishment, you might predict that the story will explore that subject. As you read, see if you have made a correct prediction, or if Chekhov has surprised you by focusing instead on some larger issue.

Summary

The Bet is an 1889 short story by Anton Chekhov about a banker and a young man who make a bet with each other based on capital punishment and whether the death penalty is better or worse than life in prison. An ironic twist responds to this exploration of the value of a human life with an unexpected result.

Questions and Answers 

A Reading Focus Making Predictions Based on these first paragraphs, what do you think will be the main subject of the story?
Possible response: The story appears to be a debate about the merits of capital punishment versus life imprisonment.

B Reading Focus Making Predictions How has the banker’s view of the bet changed in fifteen years? What do you predict he will do next?
Possible response: The banker, fifteen years later, views the bet as “nonsensical and meaningless” and characterizes it in terms of caprice and greed. He may want to find a way to get himself out of the bet.

C Literary Perspectives Analyzing Credibility in Literature What makes the story seem believable so far?
D Literary Focus Theme Based on this description of the prisoner’s activities, what can you infer about the story’s theme?
E Reading Focus Making Predictions What new problem arises in this passage? What could happen next?
F Literary Perspectives Analyzing Credibility in Literature Does the banker’s hesitation seem believable here? Why or why not?
G Literary Focus Theme In one sense, the lawyer spends his years of imprisonment searching for the meaning of life. What do you think he discovers by the story’s end?
H Reading Focus Making Predictions Are you surprised at the banker’s actions at the end? What ending to the story did you predict?

Respond and Think Critically

Reading Focus

1. Why do the lawyer and the banker make a bet? 
2. At the end of the fifteen years, how has the banker’s situation changed? 
3. Why does the banker go to the lodge on the last night of the lawyer’s imprisonment? 
4. What decision does the lawyer announce in a letter? Why does he make this decision? Read with a Purpose 
5. Who wins the bet—the banker, the lawyer, or neither character? Explain your answer.
6. Now that you have finished reading, add a box next to your “Prediction” box. In this box, tell whether your prediction was right or wrong; if it was wrong, tell what actually happened.

Literary Focus
7. Interpret In retrospect, the banker views his bet as “the caprice of a pampered man.” How does he feel about himself at the end of the fifteen years? What does this reveal about Chekhov’s view about what is important in life?
8. Analyze Like a psychiatrist, Chekhov meticulously describes the effects of the lawyer’s solitary exile. How does isolation affect the prisoner at different stages over the fifteen-year period? 
9. Evaluate Do you think the lawyer would have had such a dismal view of the world had he not been imprisoned? Explain your answer. 
10. Literary Perspectives Whose actions did you find more credible: the banker’s or the lawyer’s? How would you change the story to make it more believable?
11. Interpret State in a full sentence what you think is the story’s main theme—the insight it provides about human experience. Do you think this story has more than one theme? Explain.
12. Make Judgments The reason or reasons behind a character‘s behavior are called motivation. The banker believes that “greed for money” was the lawyer’s motivation for betting. Do you agree? Cite textual evidence that supports your position.

Vocabulary Check

Answer the questions about the Vocabulary words. 
1. Is the lawyer frivolous? Explain. 
2. Is attending college compulsory
3. Why does the banker consider the bet a caprice
4. What does it mean that the prisoner zealously studied books and languages in prison? 
5. In the last two years, the lawyer read indiscriminately. What sorts of books did he read? 
6. If the prisoner’s visions were ethereal, were they delicate or nightmarish? 
7. The lawyer renounced the money. Does that mean he claimed it, or that he rejected it?

Match each Vocabulary word with its synonym.

1. frivolous             a. whim
2. caprice                b. reject
3. zealously             c. enthusiastically
4. renounce              d. silly


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Mr. ‏El-Sayed Ramadan ‎ ‎

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