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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Of what crime is the young man accused in "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

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As is often the case in fairy-tale-like stories, the crime of the young man is daring to fall in love with a princess, "the daughter of a king." The assumption is that, at this time long ago in this mythical kingdom, a strict class hierarchy is in place, and the young man, apparently without any title, such as lord or earl, is breaking the law and out of line in even looking at a princess in a way that might communicate love to her.

The fact that he is put on trial carries with it a presumption of possible innocence. In this case, however, each possible outcome works out in favor of the king and against the interests of the daughter. If the young man opens the door with the tiger behind it, he will be devoured. If he opens the door with the maiden behind it, he will marry someone other than the princess. For the king this is win-win, for the daughter lose-lose. The only one in a win-lose situation is the young man.

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Looking at the story carefully, we see that the "crime" that the young man was accused of was actually loving the daughter of the king. It was only the discovery of the relationship between the daughter of the king and the young man that brought about this accusation. For us, this "crime" seems rather unfair as it is not actually a crime, but the text is careful to tell us why this was regarded as a crime in this particular time:

Never before had such a case occurred; never before had a subject dared to love the daughter of a king. In after-years such things became commonplace enough; but then they were, in no slight degree, novel and startling.

Thus, from this quote, the precise nature of the crime that the young man is accused of is falling in love with somebody that was regarded as socially being his superior. We can see from the quote that "daring" to love the daughter of the ruler was an unheard of event, and was regarded as a crime because persumably the king was the one to decide who would marry his daughter.

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The young man was not accused of a specific crime. The king sentenced him to the ordeal in the arena because he was a lowly commoner who was having a torrid love affair with the king's daughter. The king was an autocratic ruler and could sentence anybody to the ordeal if he wanted to do so, and he was angered by the audacity of any commoner making love to his daughter.

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

Since such a case had never occurred before, there was no written law about it on the books. The king arbitrarily made it a crime, as he was entitled to do.

He was a man of exuberant fancy, and, withal, of an authority so irresistible that, at his will, he turned his varied fancies into facts. 

There was no such thing as a defense attorney in those days or in that kingdom. The question of guilt or innocence would be decided by what happened in the arena. 

No matter how the affair turned out, the youth would be disposed of, and the king would take an aesthetic pleasure in watching the course of events, which would determine whether or not the young man had done wrong in allowing himself to love the princess.

The story was originally published in The Century in 1882, and to this day readers have continued to wonder what happened to the princess's handsome lover. His fate seems to have been determined by the princess herself. Was she more strongly motivated by love or by jealousy? The lover obviously trusted her implicitly--but was he in for a big surprise when he opened the door she indicated? 

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