Sunday, August 6, 2017

Model Short Story: THE BET by Anton Chekhov

The singer and his song, the writer and his story. The creator and his work are inseparable in classic works. Anton Chekhov and his short stories and plays are among the world's literary masterpieces. Likewise, Vincent Van Gogh and his paintings opened a school later called expressionism. So with Jose Rizal and his novels - Noli and Fili - which are heroic expressions of genius in the greatest hour.

Dr Abe V Rotor
 Living with Nature - School on Blog 

I have chosen one of Chekhov's favorite short stories. The Bet is about two men who agreed to a bet. Two million rupees is the prize offered by the older fellow, a banker, to the younger man, a journalist - if he can outlive solitary confinement. The challenge arose from a discussion on which is better, capital punishment or life imprisonment? The idealistic, younger fellow took the latter argument.

Anton Chekhov's monument in Crimea, Ukraine

What happened to the journalist who took the challenge to live in solitary confinement - not only for five years as earlier offered, but on his own volition, for fifteen years?

Here towards the end of the 15th year with certainty of winning the bet, the "prisoner" prepared for his prize money and freedom, wrote a letter for his opponent-benefactor to read.

To quote

"Tomorrow at twelve o’clock I regain my freedom and the right to associate with other men, but before I leave this room and see the sunshine, I think it is necessary to say a few words to you. With a clear conscience I tell you, as before God, who beholds me, that I despise freedom and life and health, and all that your books call the good things of the world.

"For fifteen years I have been intently studying earthly life. It is true that I have not seen the earth nor men, but your books I have drunk fragrant wine, I have sung songs, I have hunted stags and wild boars in the forest, have loved women… 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. In your books I have climbed to the peaks of Elburz and Mont Blanc, and from there I have seen the sun rise and have watched it at evening flood the sky, the ocean, and the mountaintops with gold and crimson. I have watched from there the lightning flashing over my head and cleaving the storm clouds. I have seen green forests, fields, rivers, lakes, towns. I have heard the singing of sirens, and strains of the shepherd’s pipes; I have touched the wings of comely devils who flew down to converse with me of God … In your books I have flung myself into the bottomless pit, performed miracles, slain, burned towns, preached new religions, conquered whole kingdoms.

Your books have given me wisdom. All the unresting thought of man has in the ages is compressed into a small compass in my brain. I know that I am wiser than all of you.

"And I despise your books, I despise wisdom and the blessings of this world. It is all worthless, illusory and deceptive, like a mirage. You may be proud, wise and fine, but death will wipe you of 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.

You have lost your reason and taken a wrong path. You have taken lies for truth, and hideousness for beauty. You would marvel if, owing to strange events of some sort, frogs and lizards suddenly grew on apple and orange trees instead of fruit, or if roses began to smell like a sweating horse; so I marvel at you who exchange heaven for earth. I don’t understand you.

To prove to you in action how I despise all that you live by, I renounce the two million of which I once dreamt as of paradise and which I now despise."

A few minutes before the agreed time of freedom, the journalist surreptitiously left his cell to nowhere, and without anyone's knowledge, thereafter. The banker wept after reading the letter, which only he alone read, after which he locked it in his safe.
One may ask how a writer, like Chekhov, can develop a theme of such passion at the border of sanity and reality? It is a kind that gives less importance to style and technique, which is often the hindrance to attempts in literary writing. Here is an example of "substance first, before technique."

Well, it is said that to appreciate a piece of art, one must know the artist. So is in the case of a short story.

Anton Chekhov (1864-1904) Russian writer, wrote hundreds of short stories and numerous plays. The elements of melancholy, loneliness, and futility that pervade Chekhov’s works are tempered by touches of humor and gentle irony. He emphasized mood rather than plot, and realistic rather than a romantic treatment of life. He once wrote to his brother, “Don’t invent sufferings which you have not experienced … ” ~

NOTE: Here are quotations by Anton Chekhov to help the reader understand the character of the man.

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