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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What crime led to the young man's imprisonment in "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

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The young man is thrown into prison for falling in love with the princess, the much beloved daughter of the king. The young man is brave and handsome, but lowborn. The princess falls in love with him without the approval—or even knowledge—of her father. In fact, the romance goes on undiscovered, we are told, for many months. When the princess's father, who very much likes to have things his own way, realizes what has happened, he has the young man cast into prison. As the text states:

Never before had such a case occurred; never before had a subject dared to love the daughter of the king.

We see from this action that the king is very possessive of his daughter. He also has a strong sense of social class, which means he is offended that the young man has overstepped his boundaries and dared to love a person so far above him in rank.

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The young man made the serious mistake of falling in love with the king's daughter and engaging in a passionate love affair with her. 

Among his courtiers was a young man of that fineness of blood and lowness of station common to the conventional heroes of romance who love royal maidens....This love affair moved on happily for many months, until one day the king happened to discover its existence. He did not hesitate nor waver in regard to his duty in the premises. The youth was immediately cast into prison, and a day was appointed for his trial in the king's arena.

What the king apparently objected to was not the love affair itself but the fact that the young man had too low a "social station" to dare to engage in such a relationship with his daughter. There may not have been any law against doing what the young man was doing, but the barbaric king could make his own laws. And that was what he was doing. At least the king was giving the poor fellow a fifty-fifty chance to stay alive and even to marry a beautiful girl if he chose the right door. 

The fact that there is a beautiful girl behind one of the two doors is what causes the problem. The princess knows which door conceals the tiger, and she would undoubtedly direct her lover to the other door if it did not conceal a beautiful girl whom her lover would immediately marry. Whatever was going to happen happened a long, long time ago. The story opens with the words:

In the very olden time there lived a semi-barbaric king...

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The young man, in The Lady, or the Tiger?, was thrown in prison because the King found out about the love affair he had been carrying on, for months, with his daughter.  Also it was not allowed for a commoner to court Royalty, even though he was one of the King's Royal Attendants.  This was not a crime as we know it today, but in this kingdom, where laws are not logical to us, he was considered a criminal.

Reference:  The Language and Literature Book by McDougal Littell

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The "semibarbaric" king had an interesting way of deciding the guilt or innocence of people who committed crimes. Essentially the guilty were thrown into an arena and asked to choose between two doors. If a person was innocent then that person's innocence would somehow draw them to choose the door that led to a wife. If a person was guilty then their guilt could not be hidden for when they chose a door it would inevitably be a ferocious tiger that would rip him apart.

The young man in the story did not really commit a crime, but he had fallen in love with the king's beautiful daughter and she in turn was in love with him. He was only a commoner and therefore not worthy of the love of a king's daughter. In an effort to stop his daughter from dipping below her station in life he had the man brought into the arena to choose his fate. The king did not care what the man chose because either choice would ensure that his daughter would be free of the forbidden love affair. The story does not specifically state his crime, only that he was arrested and thrown into prison to be put on trial.

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Of what crime is the young man accused in "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

As is often the case in fairy-tale-like stories, the crime of the young man is daring to fall in love with a princess, "the daughter of a king." The assumption is that, at this time long ago in this mythical kingdom, a strict class hierarchy is in place, and the young man, apparently without any title, such as lord or earl, is breaking the law and out of line in even looking at a princess in a way that might communicate love to her.

The fact that he is put on trial carries with it a presumption of possible innocence. In this case, however, each possible outcome works out in favor of the king and against the interests of the daughter. If the young man opens the door with the tiger behind it, he will be devoured. If he opens the door with the maiden behind it, he will marry someone other than the princess. For the king this is win-win, for the daughter lose-lose. The only one in a win-lose situation is the young man.

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Of what crime is the young man accused in "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

Looking at the story carefully, we see that the "crime" that the young man was accused of was actually loving the daughter of the king. It was only the discovery of the relationship between the daughter of the king and the young man that brought about this accusation. For us, this "crime" seems rather unfair as it is not actually a crime, but the text is careful to tell us why this was regarded as a crime in this particular time:

Never before had such a case occurred; never before had a subject dared to love the daughter of a king. In after-years such things became commonplace enough; but then they were, in no slight degree, novel and startling.

Thus, from this quote, the precise nature of the crime that the young man is accused of is falling in love with somebody that was regarded as socially being his superior. We can see from the quote that "daring" to love the daughter of the ruler was an unheard of event, and was regarded as a crime because persumably the king was the one to decide who would marry his daughter.

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Of what crime is the young man accused in "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

The young man was not accused of a specific crime. The king sentenced him to the ordeal in the arena because he was a lowly commoner who was having a torrid love affair with the king's daughter. The king was an autocratic ruler and could sentence anybody to the ordeal if he wanted to do so, and he was angered by the audacity of any commoner making love to his daughter.

Never before had such a case occurred; never before had a subject dared to love the daughter of the king. 

Since such a case had never occurred before, there was no written law about it on the books. The king arbitrarily made it a crime, as he was entitled to do.

He was a man of exuberant fancy, and, withal, of an authority so irresistible that, at his will, he turned his varied fancies into facts. 

There was no such thing as a defense attorney in those days or in that kingdom. The question of guilt or innocence would be decided by what happened in the arena. 

No matter how the affair turned out, the youth would be disposed of, and the king would take an aesthetic pleasure in watching the course of events, which would determine whether or not the young man had done wrong in allowing himself to love the princess.

The story was originally published in The Century in 1882, and to this day readers have continued to wonder what happened to the princess's handsome lover. His fate seems to have been determined by the princess herself. Was she more strongly motivated by love or by jealousy? The lover obviously trusted her implicitly--but was he in for a big surprise when he opened the door she indicated? 

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