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.