The Anton Chekhov short story “The Bet” opens with a morbid dinner conversation. The guests debate which is worse—to rot in prison forever, or to be killed swiftly? The attorney general, Bill Barr, weighed in last week on the side of Chekhov’s banker, a rich man who favors capital punishment. (Barr announced that the federal government will resume killing those convicted of capital offenses, a practice it had stopped nearly 20 years ago.) At the banker’s table, a younger man disagrees. They make a bet: If the young man spends 15 years in the rich man’s guest cottage, with food and reading material of his choice slipped under the door but no other human contact, at the end of his captivity he will inherit a large portion of the banker’s fortune. He can leave whenever he wishes, but would then forfeit his prize.
If any crime deserves capital punishment, it is spoiling Chekhov stories, so I will not reveal much more. (You can read the whole story here, in about seven minutes.) The tale unfolds from the jailer’s perspective, and through lists of books the prisoner requests. The requests are fleeting silhouettes of the man, cast ever more enigmatically as his eager youth dissipates and he becomes, in isolation, something less or more than human. The banker and the prisoner both end up humbled, at various points, as they realize they had wagered confidently on matters they could not comprehend: death on the one hand, and the effects of long-term captivity on the other.