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Themes in The Lady, or the Tiger?

The Illusion of Unbiased Choice: The king has devised a system of justice that absolves him of all judicial responsibility. By allowing the prisoners to choose which door to enter, the burden of their fate belongs to them. In the king’s eyes, the prisoner chose to commit the crime, and therefore he should choose his consequence. For example, the young lover of the princess chose to fall in love with the king’s daughter. Now the young man must make a choice in the arena, the consequences of which will assuredly prevent him from being with the princess. However, because the young man is allowed to choose for himself, all others, the king and the audience included, are absolved of the burden of choice.

Love vs. Possession: Until the revelation of the affair, the princess and her lover seem to be happily in love. After discovering the truth, the princess is jealous of the other woman and her relationship with the young man. This ignites a fiery hatred of the woman. However, the young man remains steadfast in his love for the princess. Even on the day of his judgment at the arena, he loves and trusts her. He even goes so far as to follow her recommendation as to which door to open in the arena. The king also claims to have great love for his daughter and yet he throws the man she loves into an unwinnable arena. When supposedly acting out of love, these characters could in fact simply be acting out of a sense of possession. The blurred line between the two ideas is something that the characters continually straddle.

The Inherent Selfishness in Betrayal: Betrayal is a key factor driving many of the decisions made in the story. The king feels betrayed by the princess’s lover, so he puts him into the arena. This leads the princess to betray the king by discovering which door holds which fate. The princess is motivated by her belief that the lady has seduced the young man. If true, this affair represents a betrayal of their love. This leads to the final question of whether or not the princess betrays the young man in the arena—a question that remains unanswered. In every stage of the story, the betrayals—or perceived betrayals—are born from the desire to do what is in a character’s own self interest.

Themes Examples in The Lady, or the Tiger?:

The Lady, or the Tiger?

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"And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door,—the lady, or the tiger?..."   (The Lady, or the Tiger?)

Here, the narrator turns the readers into the princess. Like the princess, the readers have all the necessary information to make an decision about the fate of the lover. By leaving the story open-ended, he forces the reader to confront their own biases regarding how they would act and what choice they would make in the princess’s situation.

"Would it not be better for him to die at once, and go to wait for her in the blessed regions of semi-barbaric futurity?..."   (The Lady, or the Tiger?)

In any other trial, the prisoner must make a choice and live with the consequences, despite having no way of weighing the options beforehand. The princess adds depth to this decision by the fact of her knowledge. She has the power to examine the options closely, meaning that she’s the only one who must live with the consequences.

"it may have been on most unimportant topics, but how could she know that?..."   (The Lady, or the Tiger?)

The lover and the lady have been seen together, sending rumors flying and the princess spiraling into an abyss of rage and jealousy. This jealousy is perhaps the most important factor of the plot, as it decides the fate of the lover at the end. Stockton could also be making a subtle argument about the power of literature and language. Even the most whimsical and unimportant of topics can hold great influence. Indeed, this is the stance a humorist, someone whose career is built on using whimsy to influence others , would take.

"those fateful portals, so terrible in their similarity..."   (The Lady, or the Tiger?)

To the prisoner, the doors appear to be exactly the same. He has no knowledge of what lies on the other side of either one. The only one with this knowledge is the princess, making her influence on her lover’s decision the only truly biased action at this stage of the story. She knows that she will lose her lover no matter the door he picks, so she must study the consequences of her decision. This examination of consequence is a luxury—and burden—afforded to no other person in the arena.

"fate..."   (The Lady, or the Tiger?)

In this story, the force of “fate” could belong to either the princess or the readers. In the narrative, fate is revealed to be guided by the princess, as she has the ability to make a choice based on her knowledge of the doors and their consequences. Stockton removes himself from the equation by ending the story before the reveal of what’s behind the chosen door. He instead gives the choice to the readers, simultaneously leaving them in a state of uncertainty and forcing them to choose.

"thinking part of the community could bring no charge of unfairness against this plan, for did not the accused person have the whole matter in his own hands?..."   (The Lady, or the Tiger?)

This is where Stockton begins to hint at the story’s twist ending, or lack thereof. The “thinking part of the community” may serve as a implicit nod to his readership. Despite the apparent fairness of the system, the entire story is about displacing the final decision onto somebody else. In fact, the displacement of choice goes beyond the limits of the story itself, as the “whole matter” is in the hands and minds of the audience, not any of the characters.

"arena..."   (The Lady, or the Tiger?)

Although not a human character in the story, the arena plays just as crucial a role. A creation of the king’s modeled after the Roman Colosseum, the arena is used to judge the criminals of the kingdom. In the center of the arena there are two doors. Behind one, a ferocious tiger waits to maul the man on trial. Behind the other, a suitable bride sits. If the criminal opens the door with the bride, he will immediately be married to her The arena serves as a physical representation of the theme of consequence and choice. No matter the decision, there are grave and irreversible consequences. It also embodies the king’s simplification of justice, for underlying each punishment is random chance.

"half of him which was barbaric..."   (The Lady, or the Tiger?)

The duality of the king is reflective of the duality of the punishments at the arena. There is the barbaric and violent fate: death at the hands, or paws, of the tiger. However, there is also the more civilized fate: marriage to a suitable bride. This struggle between the refined and the cruel is a constant in the kingdom and a common theme of the story.

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