"The Bet" by Anton Chekhov

To settle a bet, a lawyer decides to stay in solitary confinement for fifteen years. Read the full text here.

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definitions & notes only words
  1. unsuitable
    not conducive to good moral development
    They considered that form of punishment out of date, immoral, and unsuitable for Christian States.
    In another translation of the story, the adjective "obsolete" is used in place of the phrase "out of date"--that choice would have been more suitable ("meant or adapted for use") for the consistency and rhythm of the sentence. Keep in mind that the notes here are specific to this English translation and do not take into account shades of meanings of the original Russian words.
  2. humane
    marked by concern with the alleviation of suffering
    "I have not tried either the death penalty or imprisonment for life, but if one may judge a priori, the death penalty is more moral and more humane than imprisonment for life. Capital punishment kills a man at once, but lifelong imprisonment kills him slowly. Which executioner is the more humane, he who kills you in a few minutes or he who drags the life out of you in the course of many years?"
  3. confinement
    the state of being enclosed
    I'll bet you two millions you wouldn't stay in solitary confinement for five years.
    In Latin, "finis" means "border"--the borders within which the prisoner has agreed to be confined is a lodge in the banker's garden. The prisoner has a piano and would be provided with anything he wants that can fit through a window. Another key difference from the physical confinement of a prison is the voluntary and solitary nature. Thus, the bet would not settle the debate about the humaneness of lifelong imprisonment versus the death penalty.
  4. earnest
    characterized by a firm, humorless belief in one's opinions
    "If you mean that in earnest," said the young man, "I'll take the bet, but I would stay not five but fifteen years."
  5. frivolous
    not serious in content or attitude or behavior
    The banker, spoilt and frivolous, with millions beyond his reckoning, was delighted at the bet.
    Compare with the antonymous "earnest"--if the young lawyer had been more aware of the banker's frivolous reputation, he might not have been so earnestly willing to take the bet. The lawyer could also be characterized as frivolous for throwing in an extra ten years of his life, in an attempt to earn two millions without actually working.
  6. trifle
    something of small importance
    To me two millions are a trifle, but you are losing three or four of the best years of your life.
    Compare this noun to the similar adjective "frivolous": the Middle English "frivol" means "trifle" and the Old French "trufle" means "trickery"--trickery was not intended by the banker at the time he made this statement in front of an entire party filled with clever guests (including journalists), but fifteen years later, when two millions are no longer a trifle, the banker looks for a way to avoid paying.
  7. compulsory
    required by rule
    Don't forget either, you unhappy man, that voluntary confinement is a great deal harder to bear than compulsory. The thought that you have the right to step out in liberty at any moment will poison your whole existence in prison.
  8. caprice
    a sudden desire
    On my part it was the caprice of a pampered man, and on his part simple greed for money..."
  9. threshold
    the entrance for passing through a room or building
    It was agreed that for fifteen years he should not be free to cross the threshold of the lodge, to see human beings, to hear the human voice, or to receive letters and newspapers.
  10. obligation
    a legal agreement specifying a payment or action
    The slightest attempt on his part to break the conditions, if only two minutes before the end, released the banker from the obligation to pay him two millions.
  11. dreary
    lacking in liveliness or charm or surprise
    Wine, he wrote, excites the desires, and desires are the worst foes of the prisoner; and besides, nothing could be more dreary than drinking good wine and seeing no one.
  12. procure
    get by special effort
    In the course of four years some six hundred volumes were procured at his request.
  13. indiscriminately
    in a random manner
    In the last two years of his confinement the prisoner read an immense quantity of books quite indiscriminately.
  14. speculation
    an investment that is risky but could yield great profits
    Desperate gambling on the Stock Exchange, wild speculation and the excitability which he could not get over even in advancing years, had by degrees led to the decline of his fortune and the proud, fearless, self-confident millionaire had become a banker of middling rank, trembling at every rise and fall in his investments.
  15. despair
    a state in which all hope is lost or absent
    "Cursed bet!" muttered the old man, clutching his head in despair. "Why didn't the man die?
  16. intact
    undamaged in any way
    The seals on the door leading to the prisoner's rooms were intact.
  17. astonishment
    the feeling that accompanies something extremely surprising
    The banker expected to hear at once footsteps and a cry of astonishment, but three minutes passed and it was as quiet as ever in the room.
  18. delicate
    easily broken or damaged or destroyed
    His face was yellow with an earthy tint in it, his cheeks were hollow, his back long and narrow, and the hand on which his shaggy head was propped was so thin and delicate that it was dreadful to look at it.
  19. emaciated
    very thin especially from disease or hunger or cold
    His hair was already streaked with silver, and seeing his emaciated, aged-looking face, no one would have believed that he was only forty.
  20. stifle
    impair the respiration of or obstruct the air passage of
    And I have only to take this half-dead man, throw him on the bed, stifle him a little with the pillow, and the most conscientious expert would find no sign of a violent death.
  21. despise
    look down on with disdain
    With a clear conscience I tell you, as before God, who beholds me, that I despise freedom and life and health, and all that in your books is called the good things of the world.
    In Latin, "de" means "down" and "specere" means "to look"--these roots emphasize the physical act of looking down. Having climbed mountains in his mind, the prisoner is higher and wiser than everyone else; from this vantage point, he cannot look anywhere but down and cannot help but despise what he sees as a useless pursuit of a worldly life that cannot last or live up to what he had experienced through his readings.
  22. intently
    with strained or eager attention
    For fifteen years I have been intently studying earthly life.
  23. ethereal
    characterized by lightness and insubstantiality
    Beauties as ethereal as clouds, created by the magic of your poets and geniuses, have visited me at night, and have whispered in my ears wonderful tales that have set my brain in a whirl.
  24. cleave
    separate or cut with a tool, such as a sharp instrument
    I have watched from there the lightning flashing over my head and cleaving the storm-clouds.
    "Cleave" is a contranym that also means the opposite of the given definition: come or be in close contact with. Although the prisoner did feel as if he were cleaving to the clouds in his readings, the example sentence describes a bolt of lightning cleaving the clouds--an image that symbolizes the prisoner's intellectual and spiritual enlightenment.
  25. comely
    very pleasing to the eye
    I have heard the singing of the sirens, and the strains of the shepherds' pipes; I have touched the wings of comely devils who flew down to converse with me of God...
  26. fleeting
    lasting for a markedly brief time
    It is all worthless, fleeting, illusory, and deceptive, like a mirage.
    Of the four adjectives listed, only two ("illusory" and "deceptive") are actually synonymous. But the structure of the sentence makes all four carry the same meaning--because everything in life lasts only a short time, it is unreal, and because it's unreal, it's worthless. The image of a mirage emphasizes that earthly life is a desert, especially when compared to a paradise in heaven.
  27. posterity
    all future generations
    You may be proud, wise, and fine, but death will wipe you off the face of the earth as though you were no more than mice burrowing under the floor, and your posterity, your history, your immortal geniuses will burn or freeze together with the earthly globe.
  28. renounce
    turn away from; give up
    To prove to you in action how I despise all that you live by, I renounce the two millions of which I once dreamed as of paradise and which now I despise.
  29. compact
    a signed written agreement between two or more parties
    To deprive myself of the right to the money I shall go out from here five hours before the time fixed, and so break the compact...
  30. contempt
    lack of respect accompanied by a feeling of intense dislike
    At no other time, even when he had lost heavily on the Stock Exchange, had he felt so great a contempt for himself.
    Compare with "despise"--both connect to intense dislike and disrespect. Here, the banker despises himself, partly because of the prisoner's contempt, but mostly because he had considered killing the prisoner in order to keep his two millions. The banker was willing to trade heaven for earth, but he was saved from doing this by the prisoner's letter and escape.

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