two doorways with an elegant woman standing in one and a large tiger head in the other

The Lady, or the Tiger?

by Francis Richard Stockton
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For what crime was the young man thrown into prison in "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

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The young man is thrown into prison for falling in love with the princess, the much beloved daughter of the king. The young man is brave and handsome, but lowborn. The princess falls in love with him without the approval—or even knowledge—of her father. In fact, the romance goes on undiscovered, we are told, for many months. When the princess's father, who very much likes to have things his own way, realizes what has happened, he has the young man cast into prison. As the text states:

Never before had such a case occurred; never before had a subject dared to love the daughter of the king.

We see from this action that the king is very possessive of his daughter. He also has a strong sense of social class, which means he is offended that the young man has overstepped his boundaries and dared to love a person so far above him in rank.

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The young man made the serious mistake of falling in love with the king's daughter and engaging in a passionate love affair with her. 

Among his courtiers was a young man of that fineness of blood and lowness of station common to the conventional heroes of romance who love royal maidens....This love affair moved on happily for many months, until one day the king happened to discover its existence. He did not hesitate nor waver in regard to his duty in the premises. The youth was immediately cast into prison, and a day was appointed for his trial in the king's arena.

What the king apparently objected to was not the love affair itself but the fact that the young man had too low a "social station" to dare to engage in such a relationship with his daughter. There may not have been any law against doing what the young man was doing, but the barbaric king could make his own laws. And that was what he was doing. At least the king was giving the poor fellow a fifty-fifty chance to stay alive and even to marry a beautiful girl if he chose the right door. 

The fact that there is a beautiful girl behind one of the two doors is what causes the problem. The princess knows which door conceals the tiger, and she would undoubtedly direct her lover to the other door if it did not conceal a beautiful girl whom her lover would immediately marry. Whatever was going to happen happened a long, long time ago. The story opens with the words:

In the very olden time there lived a semi-barbaric king...

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The young man, in The Lady, or the Tiger?, was thrown in prison because the King found out about the love affair he had been carrying on, for months, with his daughter.  Also it was not allowed for a commoner to court Royalty, even though he was one of the King's Royal Attendants.  This was not a crime as we know it today, but in this kingdom, where laws are not logical to us, he was considered a criminal.

Reference:  The Language and Literature Book by McDougal Littell

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The "semibarbaric" king had an interesting way of deciding the guilt or innocence of people who committed crimes. Essentially the guilty were thrown into an arena and asked to choose between two doors. If a person was innocent then that person's innocence would somehow draw them to choose the door that led to a wife. If a person was guilty then their guilt could not be hidden for when they chose a door it would inevitably be a ferocious tiger that would rip him apart.

The young man in the story did not really commit a crime, but he had fallen in love with the king's beautiful daughter and she in turn was in love with him. He was only a commoner and therefore not worthy of the love of a king's daughter. In an effort to stop his daughter from dipping below her station in life he had the man brought into the arena to choose his fate. The king did not care what the man chose because either choice would ensure that his daughter would be free of the forbidden love affair. The story does not specifically state his crime, only that he was arrested and thrown into prison to be put on trial.

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