The Bet is my favorite short story. Two men make a twisted bet with each other after debating on whether the death penalty is more humane than life in prison. As a result of their argument, one of the men wagers to spend 15 years in solitary confinement. Through his time in confinement, the man develops his knowledge and comes to the realization that material goods are not important to him. Chekhov leaves his readers with a surprise ending about greed, wisdom, and tangible wealth.
Thanks to the Gutenberg Project, you can read The Bet online for free.
Years later, I acquired a copy of My Life, a novella written by Chekhov. It came equipped with a blindingly yellow cover that has shouted at me for the past five years for not having read the book. I finally committed to it last week, and breezed through it in less than five days. It’s a quick read, with Chekhov’s distinct way of gently leading you to questioning the status quo.
The main character, Misail, is a bourgeois young man who decides to forfeit his inheritance in favor of living a simple life, much to his father’s disappointment. He becomes a working man, learns a trade, and seems to be perpetually guilted by his sister who remains at home with their father.
The thing with Misail is that he’s still bourgeois at heart, eating dinner with society members who admire his project. He falls in love, marries, and lives with his wife among the peasants. Slowly, but surely, the two develop a disgust for the peons around them, thinking themselves better. Yet the plot twists, and after a series of salacious events, Misail finds himself truly living the “simple” life of a working man, no longer by choice. And, it would appear, that he is content.
I used to be absurd and foolish, but now I have got away from that and am afraid of nobody. I think and say aloud what I like, and I am happy.
It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, from Fellini’s 8 1/2: My dears, happiness consists of being able to say the truth without hurting anyone. Similar to The Bet, only when Misail fully and truly was rejected by and rejected society did he find the freedom he was looking for. He gave up social acceptance, material goods, philosophical conversation, and found meaning in family, work, and day-to-day living.
One of the most beautiful passages from the book is about Misail’s wife, and the passing of time.
If I wanted to order a ring for myself, the inscription I should choose would be: “Nothing passes away.” I believe that nothing passes away without leaving a trace, and that every step we take, however small, has significance for our present and future existence.
Gorgeous, no? I’ve yet to read any of Chekhov’s plays, but it’s amazing to think that someone who found literature to be his secondary passion – after medicine – had such an amazing repertoire. I find his stories to be gracefully succinct, with a clear direction. The point is driven home, subtly, without being forced. Which is precisely how it should be.