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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How does the author convey the theme of leadership and its responsibilities in "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

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“The Lady or the Tiger?” is a short story written by American writer and humorist Frank R. Stockton , which was published as the title story of his 1884 collection of short stories. It tells the tale of a "semi-barbaric" king with a unique justice system and his passionate daughter,...

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who falls in love with a young man bellow her status. The story gained a lot of commercial success, mainly because of its captivating narrative and its thought-provoking ending (which doesn’t actually resolve the plot). In fact, the title itself has often been used as anidiom in the English language for referring to a dilemma that cannot be solved.

The main plot revolves around the king’s unique justice system. Instead of sending criminals to court or to prison, the king sends them to a public arena. In it, there are two doors: one leads to a beautiful lady, chosen by the king, and the other leads to a savage tiger. According to the king, if the accused person is innocent, he will choose the door that leads to the lady, and he will marry her, no matter his age, social class, or marital status. If he is guilty of the crime, he will choose the door that leads to the hungry tiger and meet his doom. Thus, justice will be served.

The decisions of this tribunal were not only fair, they were positively determinate: the accused person was instantly punished if he found himself guilty, and, if innocent, he was rewarded on the spot, whether he liked it or not. There was no escape from the judgments of the king's arena.

Essentially, the main themes that Stockton explores are people’s choices and the consequences that follow those choices. The fate of the accused is determined by chance, as the king believes that this is the only way to achieve the ultimate, pure, and impartial justice. However, this is most definitely not the case, as the most evil of men might open the door that leads to the lady, and the most virtuous of men might face the tiger. The king doesn’t seem to realize this and believes that luck will follow only the innocent. This begs the question: Is he a good leader or is he a bad leader?

Thus, another theme that Stockton explores is the meaning of leadership. The king is described as a semi-barbaric ruler with great ideals, whose wishes must be granted, no matter their absurdity. The only thing that doesn’t make him completely barbaric is the fact that his innovations have been influenced by progressive Latin neighbors. The society doesn’t consider the gladiator fights in the Roman Colosseum barbaric, and the king has followed their example to create his public arena of justice.

In the very olden time there lived a semi-barbaric king, whose ideas, though somewhat polished and sharpened by the progressiveness of distant Latin neighbors, were still large, florid, and untrammeled, as became the half of him which was barbaric. 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.

Many argue that the king is, in fact, a tyrant. He might have figured out a way to achieve impartial justice, but he also did it for his own personal entertainment and, by extension, the entertainment of his kingdom. Stockton indirectly suggests that everyone possesses a part of the king’s barbarism, as we are all prone to give in to our passions. We are held captive by our never-ending need for pleasure and thus always seek ways to entertain our mind, even if that means witnessing or participating in something immoral.

This is why the king’s ethics and morality are often topics for many critical essays and analyses. Stockton implies that the king’s motives are justifiable, but his methods are questionable. A good leader should share the king’s passion for justice and advocate for fairness and equity; however, they must be kind, benevolent, and democratic as well, and they must know that not everything is as black and white as it seems.

The climax of the story happens when the king finds out that his daughter has fallen in love with a young man below her status, and he sends him to the arena. This is very meaningful, because the king takes pride in his unbiased nature and his candid and open-minded personality. However, when his daughter falls in love in a commoner, he is quick to judge the both of them and, basically, sends the man to his death. Thus, his character contains some hypocrisy, which is another trait that a good leader should avoid.

Knowing that she can’t dissuade her father, the princess uses her charm and her nobility to uncover which door leads to the lady and which one leads to the tiger. On the way, she also learns that the lady behind the door is someone who has previously tried to seduce the man she loves. The princess thus feels jealous and conflicted, because if she helps the young man, he will have to marry her rival and maybe even discover happiness with someone other than her. On the day of the trial, she discreetly signals the young man to choose the door to the right. Stockton doesn’t reveal what was behind this door, and readers are left to interpret the ending on themselves.

The question of her decision is one not to be lightly considered, and it is not for me to presume to set myself up as the one person able to answer it. And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door—the lady, or the tiger?

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