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?
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.