What is the theme of “The Lady, or the Tiger?” by Francis Richard Stockton?

A main theme of “The Lady, or the Tiger?” is that all are capable of barbarism. Readers might easily condemn the king for the injustices caused by his unwillingness to dispense justice. However, they find themselves more likely to relate to the princess, who is equally as barbaric as her father. In encouraging readers to consider her choice, the narrator redirects readers’ potential self-righteousness, turning it into self-questioning and doubt about our own natures.

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I would argue that the primary theme of “The Lady, or the Tiger?” is choices. The fact that the title of the story poses a question leads into this theme.

For starters, the king has made a choice to decide on people’s guilt or innocence based on a strange and barbaric method. Instead of having a trial of any kind, an accused criminal is placed in an arena with two doors and faces a blind choice as to which door to open. Behind one door awaits a beautiful bride, and behind the other awaits a savage tiger. While it is impossible to make an educated choice because he has no way of knowing which door is which, the accused is compelled to make a choice which will either end his life or see him married to a beautiful woman.

We must also consider the fact that the princess makes a choice in this story. While we are not told what lies behind the door that the princess indicates to the man she loves, the fact remains that she makes a choice. She either chooses selfishly and sends the man to his death or chooses unselfishly and watches him marry another woman.

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One theme of “The Lady, or the Tiger?” is the idea that washing one’s hands of dispensing justice does not absolve one of blame for injustice. The “semi-barbaric” king in the story removes himself from the position he holds as a dispenser of justice by setting up a system in which those who are accused of crime must blindly choose their own fate: marriage to a lady chosen specifically for them, whether they are already married or not, or death by tiger.

These outcomes have absolutely nothing to do with dispensing justice, as a guilty person could easily choose the door behind which the lady waits and the innocent person could just as easily choose the door behind which lies certain death. The king seems to believe that since the choice is out of his hands, he bears no responsibility for the death of innocents or the release of those who are guilty. The tone of the story and the king’s characterization as “semi-barbaric” would suggest otherwise.

Another theme of this story is that the potential for such barbarism as shown by the king and the princess lives within each of us. The narrator says, in relation to the princess’s lover, condemned to the arena,

Think of it, fair reader, not as if the decision of the question depended upon yourself, but upon that hot-blooded, semi-barbaric princess, her soul at a white heat beneath the combined fires of despair and jealousy. She had lost him, but who should have him?

We are all inclined to believe that we would send our lover to life, even a life without us if need be, but how can we be so sure when we are not in that situation? The story points out that we cannot be sure, just as we cannot be sure of the princess. In short, we may all be semi-barbaric.

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As is the case with many short stories, Frank Stockton's "The Lady or the Tiger?" does not have a single theme, but rather describes a human situation which one can investigate thematically in many ways.

The story sets up an artificial dilemma by means of creation of a fictional world. This dilemma is one in which the Princess is being asked whether she would prefer to see her beloved die or married to someone else. Thus one key theme of the story is the relationship between love and jealousy. 

While some people see love as by nature selfless and self-sacrificing, others see it as possessive and selfish. What makes the story interesting is the way it ends right before the Princess makes her choice. This makes us speculate about what choice she would have made and makes us think about what our own choices would be in such a situation. 

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The central theme in Frank Stockton's "The Lady or the Tiger?" is choices and consequences.  The premise of the story revolves around the semi-barbaric king whose system of justice features letting the accused choose between two identical doors, one of which has a vicious tiger and the other a fair lady.  The king's method of justice puts the freedom of choice into the hands of the accused people; their choice decides their fate.

Within the story, the reader also learns that the princess within the story has her own choice to make as well.  She figures out the secret of the doors with the intention of saving her beloved from the terrible fate of the tiger, but upon learning the identity of the maiden chosen to be the bride behind the other door, the princess feels torn in her decision.  Her love for the young man commands her to rescue him, but her jealousy and hatred of the other maiden makes her reconsider. 

The story ends with posing the idea of choices to the readers, allowing them to determine the outcome for themselves:

The question of her decision is one not to be lightly considered, and it is not for me to presume to set myself up as the one person able to answer it. And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door - the lady, or the tiger?


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