Elements of Nihilism in Anton Chekhov’s “The Bet”
Anton Chekhov, a Russian author who wrote before the Communist revolution in that country, is most famous for his theatrical works of fiction. He is, however, an accomplished writer of short fiction as well; and his stories, just like his plays, contain significant philosophical messages in a fictive mode. One such piece is “The Bet.”
To begin with, “The Bet” has a rather simplistic plot. Because of this simplicity, it is obvious that a message is the story’s true purpose. Told in retrospect from the banker’s point of view, it involves, as the title suggests, a wager between a banker and a lawyer at a dinner party. These two get involved in debate over the moral issue of capital punishment versus life imprisonment. The focus of debate concerns which of these venues is the more humane and which is more cruel. The bet emerges when the lawyer takes the stance that he would, for two million of some undesignated coin, remain in solitary confinement in one wing of the banker’s home for fifteen years. The banker, being very wealthy at the time, confidently accepts the challenge. From there, the plot focusses on the drama of the lawyer’s solitary confinement. The first years for him are lonely and hard, but then he begins to request books of all sorts. He spends the remainder of his sentence studying book after book. Finally, fifteen years, less one night, later, the story reverts to real time. The banker has lost the bulk of his wealth on the Exchange and, seeing the lawyer’s emminant victory, fears he would become destitute in paying the agreed bet. The banker decides to kill the lawyer to avoid the impending ridicule and loss of position. He goes to the lawyer’s room, enters it, and finds the man sleeping at his desk, a letter before him. The banker plots to smother the man, but he reads the letter the prisoner has written. In it, the lawyer expounds upon his utter contempt for all things earthly and states his intention to break the conditions of the bet as an expression of this hatred for “all that [the] books call the blessings of the world” (1 1106). This contempt transfers to the banker and, feeling the full weight of his foolish deed, he leaves in guilt. The next morning, the lawyer executes his intentions, the banker is ‘victorious,’ and the story ends.
Now, as previously stated, there lies beneath the lawyer’s tragic dispair some message to the reading public. Chekhov chooses to draw from the leading contemporary philosophical movement in Russia for this crucial theme. Nihilism is a movement born in the mid-nineteenth century by the liberal youth. It has evolved with the revolution into several meanings, and Chekhov addresses each of its facets in “The Bet.” An understanding of these facets is required, however, to follow Chekhov’s progress through them. First, Avrahm Yarmolinsky, in his novel Road to Revolution, presents the anarchistic beginnings of nihilism. At the time of its conception as a belief, the nihilist was an “enlightened eqoist” (2). He sought to strike out at all social practices in an effort to determine which would survive the blows of reason and revolution. Those practices that survived were good; those failing and crumbling, wrong and deserving of their demise. The lawyer and banker’s debate at the party is clearly allegorical of this initial stage of nihilism. They begin by questioning capital punishment and end their party with a genuine rational effort of proof. Their bet, though in a practical sense foolish and wasteful, is a logical way to resolve the debate over relative cruelty. To them, if the lawyer can bear the imprisonment then it must be more just that one live in confinement than die. Second, the lawyer also embodies the quest for quality of the early nihilists in his greed for the “two million” (1 1103). This “hard-headed, materialistic” attitude of the lower and middle class radicals of Russia is one of the first characteristics of the lawyer presented by Chekhov. Clearly, the lawyer, before his confinement, is a symbol of early Russian nihilism.
Next, nihilism took a shift in meaning, both for Russia and Chekhov. The most overt message delivered by “The Bet” is the nihilistic opinion of moral justification. The banker bemoans, near the story’s close, the failure of their prison bet—a wager which has become an experiment or test of their debated views—to resolve their moral dilemma over capital punishment. He comes to realize that rational argument will not succeed in justifying moral standards, due to the subjective nature of morality. No solution to their debate is found, only misery. This misery, felt by the lawyer, introduces the next and most popular phase of historical nihilism. This phase was spawned from early nihilism and the increasingly popular athiestic philosophy. Russia, with the aid of Marx, had begun to doubt the existence of God. This lead them, in Nietzsche’s terms, to dispair over the triviality and emptiness of human existence without God. Industrialization was also key in this new nihilistic setting; but, for Russia at least, the profit-grasping materialists were lost. For Chekhov, the lawyer becomes lost as well within his cell. He, in his studies, seems to be “swimming in the sea among broken pieces of wreckage… eagarly grasping one piece after another to save his life” (1 1104). He reads work after work, and does so at a high rate… right after spending a year or more on the New Testament and other religious studies. Initially, one is tempted to fit this detail into a loss of faith parallel with nihilism; he seems to search for the God that is alluding him. At this point does Chekhov take control of the philosophy.
In taking control, Chekhov presents an alternative rational as support or impetus for nihilism. It seems that he does not appreciate the loss of God in nihilist, revolutionary Russia. Therefore, he includes, in the lawyer’s final letter, a strong belief in and responsibility to God. The wizened lawyer marvels “before God who sees me” at those “who have bartered heaven for earth” when he recognizes the emptiness of life on earth (1 1106). He knows the beauty of the earth, all of its “blessings and wisdom,” from his wide-spread studies; but he adamantly rejects them due to their non-divine and basic direction. The lawyer is a nihilist in his dispair, but not in his atheism, or lack thereof.
Thus does Anton Chekhov mutate the atheism of the nihilists of his period into an equally revolutionary and effective practical philosophy with a God. It can only be assumed that Chekhov feared the ruin of his nation under a goddless mind-set. He, therefore, through his effective power of pen, presents, in the flow of his plot, a case against the athiest-nihilists. He points an accusing finger at them for their despair and for its contagious effect. One can guess that the lawyer, in finding the importance of God in his life, went on after the story to live alone, but not disparagingly. Because he flees the goddless, industrial wailings and the trivial beauties of the earth, he is expected to find his heaven, even though he suffers on earth before ascention. This is Chekhov’s contorted blend. Nihilism hand in hand with anti-nihilism.
April 9, 1989
- Schrodes, The Conscious Reader. New York: Macmillian Publishing, ed.IV pp.1102-7
- Yarmolinsky, Road to Revolution. New York: Crowell-Collier Publishing, 1962
- “Nihilism,” Edwards, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: Macmillian Publishing and The Free Press, 1967, vol.V pp.514-6
- Glicksberg, “Nihilism.” Gunner, The Course of Ideas. New York: Harper and Row, 1986, pp.427-30