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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How do the citizens of the kingdom feel about the king's way of justice in "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

In "The Lady, or the Tiger?" the citizens of the kingdom approve of the king's method of justice and find the institution fair and balanced. They subscribe to the idea that if the subject is killed by the tiger, then he must be guilty of the crime. While the audience recognizes that the system is obviously flawed, the citizens enjoy the spectacle and anxiously await the next event. The uncertainty and risk surrounding the institution contribute to its popularity.

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The king's method of justice is poetic justice. This means that the fates or the universe will provide that people are fittingly punished for their crimes. This assumes that "chance" is never "chance" but has the workings of a just god or universe behind it.

The king offers his poetic justice by forcing the accused to choose between two doors: Behind one is a hungry tiger who will devour the victim. Behind the other is a beautiful maiden the accused (always assumed to be a male) will marry with great fanfare.

According to the narrator, this means of dispensing justice is very popular. The citizens of the kingdom enjoy this justice system because it is suspenseful and entertaining. They all gather in a huge amphitheater to watch the proceedings, not knowing what the outcome will be. Either one is satisfying to them. The text states that

the masses were entertained and pleased, and the 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?

However, we do have to take this with a grain of salt. The narrator is dryly tongue-in-cheek, mixing objective narration liberally with the opinions of the tyrannous king, a man who is unwilling to allow dissent. We learn from the narrator, who uses euphemisms to humorous effect, that

nothing pleased him [the king] so much as to make the crooked straight and crush down uneven places.

In other words, were people to find this form of justice bloodthirsty and barbaric, they would know to keep their mouths shut, because the king would be delighted to "crush" them. We might especially imagine that the "thinking part" of the community might not accept the king's contention that his justice system's "perfect fairness is obvious" or that the element of chance behind it is "incorruptible."

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In Stockton's celebrated short story "The Lady or the Tiger?" the semi-barbaric king has a unique method of administering justice, which is widely popular throughout his kingdom. When a subject is accused of a crime of sufficient importance and interest to the king, the public is informed that the accused subject's fate will be decided in the king's magnificent amphitheater. Once the arena is filled, the accused subject steps out into the amphitheater and is given the opportunity to choose between two doors. Behind one door is a ferocious tiger ready to attack; behind the other, a beautiful maiden patiently waits. The subject has no way of telling what is behind each door, which is what makes the institution such a thrilling event.
If the accused subject chooses the door with the tiger behind it, he is immediately mauled and killed by the ferocious beast. If the accused subject chooses the door with the beautiful maiden behind it, a massive wedding celebration takes place, and the crowd rejoices at his fortune. Stockton writes,
The institution was a very popular one. When the people gathered together on one of the great trial days, they never knew whether they were to witness a bloody slaughter or a hilarious wedding. This element of uncertainty lent an interest to the occasion which it could not otherwise have attained. Thus, the masses were entertained and pleased, and the 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?
According to the quote, the people approve of the king's unique method of administering justice and are excited to attend the spectacle. Unlike typical gladiator fights or the slaughter of defenseless zealots, the crowd never knows what to expect, and the element of surprise is intriguing. The fact that the massive amphitheater is always packed for the spectacle is a testament to its popularity, and the citizens seem to approve of the king's obviously flawed system of justice.
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The king's justice in Frank Stockton's short story "The Lady or the Tiger" involves an arena and pure luck. An accused man is led into an amphitheater where he has the choice of two doors. Behind one door is a tiger which promptly kills him, or from behind the other door is a lady who promptly marries him. If he's lucky, he chooses the lady and, in the king's mind, proves his innocence. The opposite choice proves his guilt.

Stockton tells the reader the institution was widely popular and well attended. He writes,

The institution was a very popular one. When the people gathered together on one of the great trial days, they never knew whether they were to witness a bloody slaughter or a hilarious wedding. This element of uncertainty lent an interest to the occasion which it could not otherwise have attained. Thus, the masses were entertained and pleased, and the 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?

Of course, if you were part of the family of a man who found himself face to face with a hungry tiger you might not think much of the king's justice. Also, if you were a woman who was married to an accused man after he chose the door with a lady, you might not care for it either.

The crowds are particularly interested in the trial of princess's lover. He has been accused of simply being in love with royalty. More than ever, the arena was packed with interested subjects. Stockton writes,

From far and near the people gathered, and thronged the great galleries of the arena, and crowds, unable to gain admittance, massed themselves against its outside walls.

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Stockton writes tongue-in-cheek, or ironically, about the tyrannical king who establishes a system of "justice" based on pure chance. We learn of the king that

at his will, he turned his varied fancies into facts.

We are told too that

The institution was a very popular one.

However, it is not clear if it is "popular" because people are terrified to offend this king or because they actually enjoy the spectacle of watching a person, always apparently a male, either being devoured by a ravenous tiger or meeting the beautiful maiden he will marry. We are told that the king enjoys crushing his opponents in order make the path of his will smooth and straight, which suggests people would be likely to go along with what he wants, in order to stay alive.

However, the text does suggest that people might enjoy the spectacle:

When the people gathered together on one of the great trial days, they never knew whether they were to witness a bloody slaughter or a hilarious wedding. This element of uncertainty lent an interest to the occasion which it could not otherwise have attained.

The narrator compares this justice system to the gladiator fights in arenas that were popular in the Roman era. Since human nature is human nature, it is probable that people did enjoy the spectacle, which, like a sporting event, has no predetermined outcomes.

Regardless of the enjoyment of the spectacle, however, we are not told how the people feel about this as a way of dispensing justice. Since only the ideas and will of the king matter, and since he seems oblivious to other people's feelings, it makes sense we wouldn't know.

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The citizens of the kingdom greatly applaud the king's method of justice. Because of the unpredictability of any one trial, the people find the king's method of administering justice extremely entertaining.

They never know when they will be witness to "a bloody slaughter or a hilarious wedding." Therefore, the element of "uncertainty" in the proceedings keeps the citizens greatly engrossed in the elements of each trial. To them, the king's trials are moments of either celebratory pomp or unsurpassed violence. They are ready to enjoy either, highlighting the fact that the people are just as "semi-barbaric" as their king.

Also, the people feel that the king's trials are emblems of his fair and impartial judgment. Since each criminal in question has a choice in picking his judgment, the consensus is that he cannot in good conscience level a charge of "unfairness" against the king.

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The king in Stockton's "The Lady, or the Tiger?" is described as "semi-barbaric." If the king is only halfway civilized, then it is logical to infer that his subjects are just like he is. If the king loves the fact that his system of justice is based on a chance-driven, marriage or death trial, then his subjects must like it, too. In fact, the king doesn't build the arena and system of justice merely for brutal sport; the text says that he builds the arena "to widen and develop the mental energies of the people." Because trials in the arena present citizens with a suspenseful and uncertain ending each time, it also provides them with excitement. The text says that "the masses were entertained and pleased, and the 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?" This means that most people are entertained when there is a trial in the arena; but, even the intellectuals of the kingdom find no argument because the victim has a choice about which door to choose. That's not saying much for the intellectual community, but they accept the arena for what it is nonetheless. 

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