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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The Lady or the Tiger? Characters

The main characters in “The Lady, or the Tiger?” are the king, the princess, and the courtier.

  • The king is a “semi-barbaric” ruler who takes great pleasure in the system of justice he has devised. Though he loves his daughter, he is enraged by her affair with the courtier, whom he sentences to the arena.
  • The princess loves the courtier, but she is also jealous of the lady chosen to be his bride. She is forced to decide her lover’s fate, which readers never learn.
  • The courtier is a brave and handsome young man who trusts the princess completely.


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The King

The King is described as the semi-barbaric ruler of a distant land. Though some of his inherent barbarism has been tamed by influences from neighboring civilizations, he is still a fanciful individual who uses his power and authority to transform his whims into realities. He has a particular fondness for the arena, for both its aesthetics and its facilitation of justice: The potential outcome of watching an accused criminal be mauled by a tiger satisfies the king’s barbaric instincts, while the fact that the criminal chose the door himself absolves the king of any guilt. 

The king is a proud man who has no qualms about exercising his considerable authority. For all that he claims that the arena is a form of poetic justice, it is more accurately described as a vehicle through which the king can “crush down uneven” elements that disturb his vision for his kingdom. The young courtier commits no crime other than “allowing himself” to love a woman above his own station, and all signs indicate that the princess loves the courtier in return. However, because the king was displeased by the discrepancy between their social stations, he sentenced the courtier to the arena, effectively ensuring that, regardless of which door is chosen, the princess and the courtier will be separated. 

The Princess

The princess is a “hot-blooded, semi-barbaric” woman who must decide whether her lover lives or dies. Her choice is complicated by the fact that, should her beloved young courtier live, he will be instantaneously married to the young, beautiful lady selected as his reward for surviving the king’s trial. The princess’s love for the courtier borders on possessiveness, and she reacts to the possibility of him marrying another woman—one whom the princess hates—with despair and jealousy. 

Though the princess’s life is not at risk, the tribunal nonetheless represents a situation in which either outcome is detrimental to her. If her lover dies, then he is lost to her until they can reunite in “the blessed regions of semi-barbaric futurity.” However, if the courtier lives, then he will marry a beautiful young woman that the princess believes he already admires. In a world where love was selfless and uncomplicated, the princess’s choice may be obvious. However, Stockton emphasizes both the princess’s semi-barbaric nature and the “white heat” of her soul after it has been suffused with jealousy and loss. 

The princess’s decision to learn the secret of the two doors upends the supposedly impartial nature of the king’s tribunal. Using her considerable wealth and influence within the court, the princess successfully transfers all of the responsibility for the courtier’s fate to herself. This aligns the princess with her father, who uses his authority to maintain control over his kingdom. They are both willful individuals who resent leaving matters of importance to chance. However, whereas the king uses the arena as a way of settling trials without implicating himself in the outcome, the princess does not defer the responsibility of directing the courtier to his fate. She does not deny her knowledge of the doors and direct the courtier to make his choice independently. Instead, she spends days deliberating the outcome, focusing on how the courtier’s fate will impact her rather than how it will impact him. For all that the decision causes her anguish, she seems to relish the power she holds over her lover’s future, treating him as a possession upon whom she can exert her own will. 

The Courtier

The courtier is a “handsome” and “brave” young man who, despite being of a lower social station, falls in love with...

(This entire section contains 833 words.)

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the princess. Their love appears to be mutual, and even when the courtier’s life is on the line, he still places his full trust in the princess and follows her direction without hesitation. The courtier represents the heroic ideal of the fairy-tale tradition; he is young, handsome, brave, and charming enough to win the affections of the princess. However, rather than focusing the story on the courtier, Stockton instead gives all of the narrative power to the princess. It is her choice that will determine the courtier’s fate, and his trust in her will prove to be either his salvation or his downfall.

The Lady

The lady is a young, beautiful woman that is selected as the potential bride of the courtier, should he choose the correct door. The princess hates the lady because she believes that the lady and the courtier have feelings for each other. 

The Reader

The reader is primarily aligned with the audience at the arena, serving as a curious spectator to the king’s sensational form of justice. However, the ending of the story places the reader in a position to decide the courtier’s fate, aligning readers with the princess. By asking readers what decision they think the princess made, Stockton forces them to engage with their own views on human nature.