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A key element in "The Lady, or the Tiger?" is the subtle use of verbal irony by the author, Frank R. Stockton. Told as a fairy-tale, Stockton's story sets the traditionally romantic child's tale on end with its irony. For, "in the very olden time," there was a "semi-barbaric" [how is one semi-barbaric, anyway?] king who is "genial" when everything goes "smoothly," but when there is
a little hitch, he was blander and more genial still, for nothing please him so much as to make the crooked straight, and crush down uneven places.
Here the reader must interpret the king's geniality as simply that he is content when things go his way; otherwise, the impediments to his contentment are "crushed" until his peace is restored. Following this passage, Stockton writes,
Among his borrowed notions was that of the public arena, in which, by exhibitions of manly and beastly valor, the minds of his subjects were refined and cultured.
Clearly, with the juxtapositioning of such words as refined and cultured in this passage about "beastly valor," the author's verbal irony is again apparent just as it is in the previous passage in which semi-barbaric and bland and genial are juxtaposed. The ironic meaning of refined is that, rather than becoming improved, elegant, or purified, the minds of the king's subjects are taken to the extreme form of the king's mind; they are "improved" by him to be in accord with his wishes so that he does not need to "make the crooked straight" or "crush down uneven places." Indeed, the king has created his own barbaric culture in which his subjects have been "refined," or conditioned.
Hardly--if the people of the king's domain were refined, they would not attend the events in the arena even though there is a chance that they might be able to see a happy event such as a wedding. Refined and cultured humans would not risk watching bloody executions for entertainment purposes. Stockton writes that
when the people gathered together on one of the great trial days, they never knew whether they were to witness a bloody slaughter or a hilarious wedding. This element of uncertainty lent an interest to the occasion which it could not otherwise have attained. Thus, the masses were entertained and pleased.
Even those who are considered "thinking" among the masses attend and look forward to the events, justifying that they are fair because the "defendant" gets to choose which door to open--so his fate must be in his own hands, right?
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