Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Bet” and the impact of Bible reading

Teaching great literature is very hazardous should you focus on the details, like theme and climax.

“The Bet” is the story of a banker and a lawyer who made a mutual bet. The lawyer said he could stay in solitary confinement for fifteen years to show the sincerity of his convictions about capital punishment. The banker offered him two million should he succeed in voluntarily remaining in solitary confinement for that long.

The lawyer would be provided a musical instrument. He could have any books to read that he wished. But he could not venture out of his dwelling place until the full 15 years transpired.

The lawyer used his time well. He read widely and deeply and even mastered several languages.

“Later on, after the tenth year, the lawyer sat immovable before his table and read only the New Testament. The banker found it strange that a man who in four years had mastered six hundred erudite volumes should have spent nearly a year in reading one book, easy to understand and by no means thick. The New Testament was then replaced by the history of religions and theology.”

My students found it hard to grasp that this paragraph provides the reason for why the lawyer left his confinement a few minutes early so as not to receive the financial reward for having remained confined for 15 years.

Three students even went to my department head and complained that I was trying to force my religion upon them. My department head asked them, “What religion do you think Mr. Smith is?” The students, devout Roman Catholics from a just-closed Catholic school for girls, answered confidently, “Roman Catholic.” My department head smiled and remarked, if that is your conviction about Mr. Smith, I for one know you are wrong!

My department head was my English teacher when I was in the tenth grade. She observed that I often carried my Bible to school. She said, when I was in her class, that she believed I would become a pastor. She said that to prepare me to that end, she would enroll me in the debate and discussion class the following year. I did well in debate, and with my debate partner, we together won the regional championship in debate. I went on to debate when I was in college at Bob Jones University, where I was on the winning debate team for the men’s championship my senior year.

Now you know part of the “rest of the story.”

Just as the lawyer’s life was entirely changed by reading the New Testament for a bit less than a year, so my life was changed after reading the New Testament from August to November of 1953.

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