The courtier is a young man whose love affair with the princess results in his imprisonment and trial. Though of lower birth than the princess, he is "handsome and brave to a degree unsurpassed in all this kingdom." He trusts absolutely in his power to charm the princess, and realizing that she knows what is behind each door, he opens the one she indicates "without the slightest hesitation."
The king is a "semi-barbaric" man with an implacable will. As part of the system of justice he has established in his land, the king sets up a system of choice for criminals. They must enter an arena and pick a door; the door may lead to their freedom or to a terrible death.
Furious when he discovers his daughter's affair with a courtier, the king condemns the young man to the arena, taking great care to select the fiercest tiger to place behind one door and the most respectable marriage candidate from among the ladies of the court behind the other.
The lady is a young courtier, picked by the king to be the young man's bride, should he open the correct door. She is beautiful, charming, and known to both the courtier and the princess. The princess perceives the lady as a rival for the young man's love, and thus she is an object of the princess's hatred and jealousy.
The princess loves a young courtier "with an ardor that had enough of barbarism in it to make it exceedingly warm and strong," The couple is very happy together until the princess's father, the king, discovers the affair and imprisons the courtier. His punishment is to determine his own fate by selecting one of two doors in an arena. One leads to a hungry tiger, the other to a respectable young lady to whom he will be immediately wed should he open that door. The princess learns which door leads to which fate, and thus exercises godlike control over the courtier's fate.
The tension in the story centers around the choice made by "that hot-blooded, semi-barbaric princess, her soul at a white heat beneath the combined fires of despair and jealousy." She knows that, whichever door her lover opens, he will never be hers again. She believes that the woman picked by the king to be the courtier's wife (if he chooses that door) has flirted with the courtier in the past. She also knows that the hungry tiger will rip him apart if he chooses the other door. After days of anguish, the princess decides which door to indicate. It is left to the reader to ponder which fate she has chosen for her lover.
Themes and Characters
Dealing with the consequences of one's choices is one of the most prominent themes in the story. The "semi-barbaric" king has set up the arena in such a way that the prisoner's choice determines his fate, regardless of his guilt or innocence. Either he is eaten by a hungry tiger or he instantly marries a beautiful girl. This element of choice absolves the king from any responsibility in the situation and intrigues the audience, which eagerly anticipates the prisoner's fate. Not knowing whether they will witness a bloody spectacle or a wedding puts the spectators in a state of suspense. Because the young man is allowed to make his own choice, all others are absolved of guilt. Whether or not the outcome of his choice is just never occurs to them.
The king himself is described as one who likes "to make the crooked straight, and crush down uneven places." In the case of the young man, the king exercises an arbitrary judgment. Because the young man has fallen in love with the princess, he must now face the consequence, which is to make another choice—one that means either life or death.
The princess has made an important choice as well: whether to direct her now unattainable young man to the tiger who will destroy him or to the lady she hates. She has agonized about her decision and imagined the consequences of both choices in vivid detail. Stockton leaves it to the reader to ponder which choice she makes for the young man, who trusts the princess completely.
(The entire section is 1,372 words.)