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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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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The theme of “The Lady or the Tiger” is that people will always act in their own best interest.

The story is about a young lady who is the king’s daughter.  The king is described as “semi-barbaric,” and his system of justice is to put the accused in an arena where he must choose two doors.  Behind one door is a tiger, and behind the other is a beautiful lady.

This vast amphitheater, with its encircling galleries, its mysterious vaults, and its unseen passages, was an agent of poetic justice, in which crime was punished, or virtue rewarded, by the decrees of an impartial and incorruptible chance.

 The inevitable happens.  The king’s daughter falls in love with a young man.  The king does not approve, so he submits the young man to his special system of justice.  The young man looks to the lady to tell him which door is safe.  Of course, his daughter knows what is behind what door.  The question is: Which door will she choose?  She made her decision “after days and nights of anguished deliberation.”

She had known she would be asked, she had decided what she would answer, and, without the slightest hesitation, she had moved her hand to the right.

Was it the lady, or the tiger that she indicated?  We do not know.  We only know that the king was acting in his best interest when he put the young man in the arena.  The young lady was acting in her best interest when she chose the door.  Which door did she choose?  It depends on what she ultimately decided was in her own best interest.

If the king’s daughter pointed to the tiger, she decided it was in her best interest to let the lover die, rather than see him with another woman.  If she chose the lady, she put his interest above hers, or she decided that it did not matter if he was married to the lady because they could still be together in secret.

Stockton wrote this story with the express purpose of leaving the ending ambiguous.  This does not matter to the theme though.  Either way, everyone acted in their own best interest.

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I feel the theme of "The Lady, or the Tiger? is one of making the right choice and overcoming jealousy and pride.  The Princess holds the fate of her lover in her hands.  She knows what is behind each door and that her lover will be looking to her for the right choice, which is life.  The princess feels that her lover has betrayed her with his flirtatious airs around the maiden behind the door.  She knows they have spoken and exchanged glances.  She also hates the maiden because of this and would love nothing more than to see her lose her lover and end up with no one and very unhappy.  She also doesn't want to see her lover married to someone other than her.  With all these situations and knowing her inheritance is "semibarbaric", one would think she would direct her lover to the wrong door.  But if she truly loves the man, she will overcome her jealousy and make the right decision and want him to live even though the consequences would not be in her favor.  She also has to not let her pride stand in the way.  She feels betrayed, but she still needs to make the right choice.

Reference:  The Language and Literature Book by McDougal Littell

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I agree with the answer below and would l like to add that the story presents its theme in a very unusual way. Not only is the story's theme about making choices, it is also about examining who we are at the heart of ourselves before making a life changing decision. The author presents this idea in such a way that we, the readers, are called to make the examination ourselves for the princess. He writes an ambiguous ending that we then are asked to figure out. When the author received letters and visits from readers of his story demanding that he write a true ending, his response was that the ending was up to the reader and whatever choice the reader made would tell the reader more about himself or herself. 

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The most prominent theme is dealing with the consequences of your actions and choices.  Poor prisoners of the king are forced to choose one of two doors which hold behind them either life or death.  And then the princess of course has the difficult choice to make whether she should tell her lover the truth about who is behind which door or not.  Enotes has an indepth discussion of choices in this story at the link below.

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