How does the king determine justice and why do his subjects regard the system as perfectly fair in the short story "The Lady or the Tiger?"

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Lynn Ramsson eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The semi-barbaric king's approach to justice has little to do with the proven innocence or guilt of the accused. Because the accused party selects his own punishment when he chooses a door (and by the way, only men seem to be capable of potentially criminal behavior in this particular kingdom), the king is able to justify in his own mind the inarguable fairness of his judicial system: the criminal chose to do something morally questionable, therefore the criminal chooses his own consequence.

Clearly, this system is flawed in many ways. The accused criminal has no agency when it comes to the door selection situation in the first place. As well, in many cases, the door obscuring the lady may conceal a punishment only somewhat less terrifying than the tiger, despite the fact that she is young and pretty; what if the accused was already happily married? Or what if the lady and the accused didn't actually like each other? A marriage to someone unsuitable can be a punishment in its own right, so the king is not actually providing a fair reward for innocence.

The narrator does not state that the king's subjects find this system perfectly fair. They enjoy the spectacle it provides, and "the thinking part of the community could bring no charge of unfairness against this plan," but enjoyment and denial do not mean tacit agreement.

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Coty Baumbach eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The "semi-barbaric" king in Frank Stockton's short story "The Lady or the Tiger" develops a justice system which is based totally on the whims of fate. Accused prisoners are tried in the arena where they have the choice of two doors. Behind one door is a tiger which kills him, thus proving the man's guilt. Behind the other door is a woman who promptly marries him, proving his innocence. In reality, it is quite a fickle form of justice and not based on anything other than good or bad luck. 

Because of the sheer luck involved and the fact that the prisoner made his own choice made the institution appear completely impartial to the subjects of the kingdom. Stockton writes,

Its perfect fairness is obvious...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?

The perfect fairness of this justice comes under question, however, in the final part of the story when the princess discovers the secret of the doors when her lover is accused of a crime. The fact that someone could discover from which the tiger or from which the lady would emerge compromised the entire process and rendered the king's justice quite corrupt. 

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