Notice the way Chekhov starts this story: "It was a dark autumn night. . ." From the beginning he gives us some indication of the tone and atmosphere of what is going to happen. It's not the kind of story that someone would begin with, "The beautiful morning sunlight glistened on the leaves as the banker . . ." No, no, no—that wouldn't work.
The banker makes a comment about "a priori," that is that something is considered true without verification or testing and he makes the joke that he has not tested the death penalty himself, but still believes it is "more moral and more humane than imprisonment for life." Technically, there is really no way to know which is the more humane because there is no one who has been given the death penalty who can say to us: "Well, let's see, I'd have to say, with only one or two reservations, that death is preferable to solitary confinement." Whether this "a priori" argument is valid is something to keep in mind at the end of the story (I'll comment on this later). Still, he has very strong opinions about it as does the young lawyer who believes both options to be immoral.
The story takes a nice twist here. Chekhov takes a debatable topic, often hotly debated in our culture, and uses it as springboard for his story about this wager.
Why does the lawyer take the bet? And why does he up the years? He could have had the same money for five years instead of fifteen. There are a few possible answers. The lawyer may be unhappy, so unhappy that he doesn't care what happens to him. He might be thinking, "Five? Ten? Fifteen? Who cares? What difference will it make in my life?" Maybe something terrible has happened him. We don't know, we can only surmise because the story does not give us that information. We can, however, think about what we know to be true in the real world and ask ourselves what would drive someone to take such a bet. Would a young man of 25 with a job he liked and woman he loved take such a bet? Probably not.
Pride may have also played a role. He's the young man of the group, it appears, and the banker is a rather bombastic, rich man who is probably used to getting his way and having people agree with his opinions.
The narrator calls the bet "wild" and "senseless." It's as if he's telling us, "It's obvious this is a stupid thing to do, but just watch what happens."
In the first year the lawyer is severely depressed and lonely and reads books of "light character." These might have been books that today we would categorize as "escapist." Just something to take the mind off of reality. The famous philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal, called this "distraction." That is, people will do anything not to think about the harsh realities of life: death, disease, evil, the poor, etc.
In the second year he starts reading "classics," the subject matter of this web site. The question is often asked what makes a book or short story or play or poem a "classic." There are several answers and they all contribute:
It's a work that stands the test of time. It has something to say to every generation.
It's a work you can read over and over again and continue to find new insights.
A classic addresses the common traits of humanity, not common in the sense of ordinary, but common in the sense that we share, for the most part, the same fears, frustrations, joys and loves. In "Self-Reliance" Emerson wrote:
To believe your own thought, to believe that what is tree for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius.
Many writers may be afraid to reveal themselves fully because they would be embarrassed, and yet maybe that is what would give their writing the chance to last because that is what would make it genuine and real. In his letter to the banker the lawyer writes:
The geniuses of all ages and of all lands speak different languages, but the same flame burns in them all.
In this evaluation the lawyer is correct.
After the classics he inhales 600 volumes in 4 years. That's one book every two-and-one-half days and we're not talking "Little Red Riding Hood" here. This is history, philosophy and languages. What happened to him? He goes from the classics into a kind of depression: angry, drinking, no reading, tearing up his writing. Then he spends four years taking in information like a high-powered vacuum cleaner. Was he looking for answers to questions that had started bothering him while reading the classics? We're not told, but he does gain a lot of satisfaction from mastering the languages he does and the "unearthly happiness" he feels because he believes he understands the geniuses he has been reading.
Then it's the gospel for a year, the story of Jesus Christ. The banker is confused. It's such a short and simple story he thinks. So why does he spend a year? What is it that is so compelling about the gospel? I suppose there are many things that one could argue. It might be that the life of Christ asks us to reflect upon our own not in a philosophical sense, but in a moral sense. Am I living a good life? Am I doing the right things? Or it may be that sections of it, possibly the sermon on the mount or the crucifixion or the resurrection set the lawyer to pondering and meditating. Chekhov doesn't tell us. Because he doesn't he leaves us to either wonder as the banker does or know in some way as the lawyer does. What do you think?
During the last two years he reads a wide range of things and here, again, the narrator jumps in with an important evaluation:
His reading suggested a man swimming in the sea among the wreckage of his ship, and trying to save his life by greedily clutching first at one spar and then at another.
The lawyer is desperate. This is borne out by his physical condition. When the banker sneaks in to kill the lawyer he finds an emaciated man. Thin, malnourished with long hair and a shaggy beard he looks much, much older than his 40 years. The question is does this man have a supreme understanding of life? He seems to indicate or at least think that he does, but his entire argument is based upon all the reading he has done because he says that through the books of the world he has experienced everything that any man could experience and even some things no man could every experience. Because of this he says that he is wiser than "all of you." And yet—he looks terrible. What has all his "wisdom" done for him? Is his life better than it was?
There's another theme here that comes out often in many pieces of literature: is too much knowledge detrimental? Are there some things that are better not to know? Are there some questions that are better not to ask? This theme comes up in The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, Frankenstein, Flatland, in the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible and many others.
So the question to ask is this: Is reading about something the same as experiencing it? Or maybe the question is this: Can you read about something and know what you to need to know about it without experiencing it? The answer to the first question is "No." The answer to the second question is — I'll let you think about that one.
Once the banker sees the lawyer and his note he has a great contempt for himself. He lays on his bed crying unable to sleep. He feels gratitude for the lawyer evidenced by his kiss on the forehead. I had the feeling that the banker learned something about himself, might even change. But the next morning, which couldn't have been more than 12 hours later at the most, the banker carefully places the letter in a fireproof safe. Why does he do this? The text says, "To avoid arousing unnecessary talk . . ." Presumably, he wanted to make sure that no one would dispute his right to the money.
The story gives the impression that the lawyer has been right and banker has been wrong. The latter has not learned anything of significance from the events that have transpired over the last 15 years. But is the lawyer the hero in this story? Has he truly come to some great understanding far beyond that of the lowly banker? I used to think so, but not anymore. He sounds right in his letter, but Chekhov's description of this broken, tired man is a big clue to this story. The lawyer has made the mistake of believing that knowledge and knowledge alone makes one wise. Knowledge needs experience, just as experience needs knowledge. William James, the American philosopher, teacher, physician, psychologist, lecturer, essayist, scholar and religious writer (Phew! Wow!) wrote:
Knowledge about life is one thing; effective occupation of a place in life, with its dynamic currents passing through your being, is another.
I like that phrase, "its dynamic currents passing through your being . . ." That's true experience. John Stuart Mill, the English journalist, logician, member of Parliament, moralist, political philosopher, political economist, political writer and autobiographer (Double phew and wow!) wrote,
There are many truths of which the full meaning cannot be realized until personal experience has brought it home.
Is this true? I guess you'll just have to experience it for yourself.