25 pages 50 minutes read

Anton Chekhov

The Bet

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1889

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.


Theoretical Knowledge Versus Experience

The question about capital punishment versus life in prison is based on an abstraction none of the guests have experience with. These young men don’t have much life experience, and they base their opinions on their theoretical knowledge—their understanding of morality, the role of the state, and the speed at which one punishment or the other may kill a person. The banker mentions the term a priori, which means based on theoretical deduction rather than empirical observation. (Its opposite, a posteriori, implies that knowledge is derived from experience and observation). “[If] one may judge a priori,” he says, “capital punishment is more moral and humane than imprisonment” (336). He acknowledges that he lacks the experience to decide but still expresses his opinion based on what he believes to be true. Chekhov doesn’t tell us the banker’s age, but it’s safe to assume that he’s older than the lawyer because he calls him “young man” (337) and, by the end of the story, the narrator describes him as “old” (339). He tries to make the lawyer reconsider his decision to enter the bet by arguing that he risks losing some of the best years of his life.