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.