This is a very thought-provoking short story. The apparent theme is, which punishment is better? Capital punishment or life imprisonment. The lawyer thinks that while both are immoral, life imprisonment is the better punishment mode, as it allows the person to live. The banker disagrees saying that capital punishment is better, as it mercifully kills the person instantly rather than killing him over the years. They make a bet whereas the lawyer would undergo voluntary imprisonment for fifteen years at the end of which the banker is to pay him two million. Fifteen years pass and the bet ends in a way unimaginable by both parties.
While the main focus is on the mode of punishment for the wrongdoers, Chekhov throws in philosophy in the second part of the story. The imprisoned lawyer studies many subjects thoroughly and becomes a sort of virtuoso. He gains “wisdom” through his learning and sees the world in a different light. The banker, on the other hand, living a delusional life slowly loses his wealth and becomes corrupt in mind. There is a huge amount of irony here. The imprisoned man reflects on worldly subjects and casts them off as irrelevant for life’s happiness while the free man is weighed down with worldly subjects believing that they are the necessities in life, and is living himself in a prison unaware of being living in one.
This was my introduction to Anton Chekhov and I was truly impressed by his writing and thinking. Since then, I’ve read a few plays of his and must say that he hasn’t disappointed me as an author.