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 do citizens view the king's justice in "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

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In "The Lady, or the Tiger?" the citizens of the kingdom approve of the king's method of justice and find the institution fair and balanced. They subscribe to the idea that if the subject is killed by the tiger, then he must be guilty of the crime. While the audience recognizes that the system is obviously flawed, the citizens enjoy the spectacle and anxiously await the next event. The uncertainty and risk surrounding the institution contribute to its popularity.

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The king's method of justice is poetic justice. This means that the fates or the universe will provide that people are fittingly punished for their crimes. This assumes that "chance" is never "chance" but has the workings of a just god or universe behind it.

The king offers his poetic justice by forcing the accused to choose between two doors: Behind one is a hungry tiger who will devour the victim. Behind the other is a beautiful maiden the accused (always assumed to be a male) will marry with great fanfare.

According to the narrator, this means of dispensing justice is very popular. The citizens of the kingdom enjoy this justice system because it is suspenseful and entertaining. They all gather in a huge amphitheater to watch the proceedings, not knowing what the outcome will be. Either one is satisfying to them. The text states that

the masses were entertained and pleased, and the thinking part of the community could bring no charge of unfairness against this plan, for did not the accused person have the whole matter in his own hands?

However, we do have to take this with a grain of salt. The narrator is dryly tongue-in-cheek, mixing objective narration liberally with the opinions of the tyrannous king, a man who is unwilling to allow dissent. We learn from the narrator, who uses euphemisms to humorous effect, that

nothing pleased him [the king] so much as to make the crooked straight and crush down uneven places.

In other words, were people to find this form of justice bloodthirsty and barbaric, they would know to keep their mouths shut, because the king would be delighted to "crush" them. We might especially imagine that the "thinking part" of the community might not accept the king's contention that his justice system's "perfect fairness is obvious" or that the element of chance behind it is "incorruptible."

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In Stockton's celebrated short story "The Lady or the Tiger?" the semi-barbaric king has a unique method of administering justice, which is widely popular throughout his kingdom. When a subject is accused of a crime of sufficient importance and interest to the king, the public is informed that the accused subject's fate will be decided in the king's magnificent amphitheater. Once the arena is filled, the accused subject steps out into the amphitheater and is given the opportunity to choose between two doors. Behind one door is a ferocious tiger ready to attack; behind the other, a beautiful maiden patiently waits. The subject has no way of telling what is behind each door, which is what makes the institution such a thrilling event.
If the accused subject chooses the door with the tiger behind it, he is immediately mauled and killed by the ferocious beast. If the accused subject chooses the door with the beautiful maiden behind it, a massive wedding celebration takes place, and the crowd rejoices at his fortune. Stockton writes,
The institution was a very popular one. 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, and the thinking part of the community could bring no charge of unfairness against this plan, for did not the accused person have the whole matter in his own hands?
According to the quote, the people approve of the king's unique method of administering justice and are excited to attend the spectacle. Unlike typical gladiator fights or the slaughter of defenseless zealots, the crowd never knows what to expect, and the element of surprise is intriguing. The fact that the massive amphitheater is always packed for the spectacle is a testament to its popularity, and the citizens seem to approve of the king's obviously flawed system of justice.
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The king's justice in Frank Stockton's short story "The Lady or the Tiger" involves an arena and pure luck. An accused man is led into an amphitheater where he has the choice of two doors. Behind one door is a tiger which promptly kills him, or from behind the other door is a lady who promptly marries him. If he's lucky, he chooses the lady and, in the king's mind, proves his innocence. The opposite choice proves his guilt.

Stockton tells the reader the institution was widely popular and well attended. He writes,

The institution was a very popular one. 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, and the thinking part of the community could bring no charge of unfairness against this plan, for did not the accused person have the whole matter in his own hands?

Of course, if you were part of the family of a man who found himself face to face with a hungry tiger you might not think much of the king's justice. Also, if you were a woman who was married to an accused man after he chose the door with a lady, you might not care for it either.

The crowds are particularly interested in the trial of princess's lover. He has been accused of simply being in love with royalty. More than ever, the arena was packed with interested subjects. Stockton writes,

From far and near the people gathered, and thronged the great galleries of the arena, and crowds, unable to gain admittance, massed themselves against its outside walls.

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Stockton writes tongue-in-cheek, or ironically, about the tyrannical king who establishes a system of "justice" based on pure chance. We learn of the king that

at his will, he turned his varied fancies into facts.

We are told too that

The institution was a very popular one.

However, it is not clear if it is "popular" because people are terrified to offend this king or because they actually enjoy the spectacle of watching a person, always apparently a male, either being devoured by a ravenous tiger or meeting the beautiful maiden he will marry. We are told that the king enjoys crushing his opponents in order make the path of his will smooth and straight, which suggests people would be likely to go along with what he wants, in order to stay alive.

However, the text does suggest that people might enjoy the spectacle:

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.

The narrator compares this justice system to the gladiator fights in arenas that were popular in the Roman era. Since human nature is human nature, it is probable that people did enjoy the spectacle, which, like a sporting event, has no predetermined outcomes.

Regardless of the enjoyment of the spectacle, however, we are not told how the people feel about this as a way of dispensing justice. Since only the ideas and will of the king matter, and since he seems oblivious to other people's feelings, it makes sense we wouldn't know.

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The citizens of the kingdom greatly applaud the king's method of justice. Because of the unpredictability of any one trial, the people find the king's method of administering justice extremely entertaining.

They never know when they will be witness to "a bloody slaughter or a hilarious wedding." Therefore, the element of "uncertainty" in the proceedings keeps the citizens greatly engrossed in the elements of each trial. To them, the king's trials are moments of either celebratory pomp or unsurpassed violence. They are ready to enjoy either, highlighting the fact that the people are just as "semi-barbaric" as their king.

Also, the people feel that the king's trials are emblems of his fair and impartial judgment. Since each criminal in question has a choice in picking his judgment, the consensus is that he cannot in good conscience level a charge of "unfairness" against the king.

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The king in Stockton's "The Lady, or the Tiger?" is described as "semi-barbaric." If the king is only halfway civilized, then it is logical to infer that his subjects are just like he is. If the king loves the fact that his system of justice is based on a chance-driven, marriage or death trial, then his subjects must like it, too. In fact, the king doesn't build the arena and system of justice merely for brutal sport; the text says that he builds the arena "to widen and develop the mental energies of the people." Because trials in the arena present citizens with a suspenseful and uncertain ending each time, it also provides them with excitement. The text says that "the masses were entertained and pleased, and the thinking part of the community could bring no charge of unfairness against this plan; for did not the accused person have the whole matter in his own hands?" This means that most people are entertained when there is a trial in the arena; but, even the intellectuals of the kingdom find no argument because the victim has a choice about which door to choose. That's not saying much for the intellectual community, but they accept the arena for what it is nonetheless. 

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How are people punished or rewarded under the king's system of justice in "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

A very simple system of justice rewards or punishes people in this story. This court of justice also doubles as entertainment. It operates on the principle that chance, being impartial, is the best judge: "crime was punished, or virtue rewarded, by the decrees of an impartial and incorruptible chance."

A person--always assumed to be a heterosexual male--who is accused of a crime--is put in a huge amphitheater, where thousands of spectators watch a suspenseful drama unfold. The accused is faced with two doors. Behind one is a hungry tiger, ready to pounce and devour the person. Behind the other is a beautiful maiden, who, if picked, will be the bride of the accused. If the person chooses the door behind which the tiger waits, he is considered guilty, and the audience can watch as chance dictates a gruesome death. If he picks the door hiding the maiden, his marriage is celebrated with music and a parade of people enjoying the occasion. Everybody has a good time--except of course the poor souls devoured by the ravenous tigers.

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How are people punished or rewarded under the king's system of justice in "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

The narrator of Stockton's "The Lady, or the Tiger?" describes the king's semi-barbaric method of administering justice as "perfect" in its fairness. 

When a subject is accused of a crime that arouses enough interest in the king, his subjects are summoned to assemble in the galleries of the amphitheater. The king sits on his throne with his court in an elevated section, and the accused is summoned to the arena of the amphitheater. There, opposite the accused are two doors beside each other, exactly alike in appearance. This person charged with a crime must approach these two doors and open one of them. Either door can be opened.

He was subject to no guidance or influence but that of the aforementioned impartial and incorruptible chance.

Behind one door is a fierce, hungry tiger which will spring on the accused and tear the person to pieces as punishment; professional mourners then appear and the subjects file out with heads bowed in sorrow that one so young has met such a fate. 
Behind the other door there is a lovely maiden, and the accused is married immediately as a reward for his innocence. If the accused is already married this does not matter because the king "allowed no such arrangements to interfere" with his reward for innocence. Then, the happy couple departs, followed by a band of choristers and dancing maidens who blow golden horns, creating a merry tune. People shout happily and children strew flowers in their path.

This is king's method of justice; "its perfect fairness is obvious." For, the accused cannot know which door will hold the tiger or the lady. Certainly, too, the judgments of the king are swift and final.  

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How are people punished or rewarded under the king's system of justice in "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

When I was a lad, my brother read me this story (or perhaps directed me to read it). What we found so fascinating was the idea that the story has no ending; you never find out what was behind the door!  So imagine my surprise when as a college class with my favorite English professor was ending for the day, he gave us all copies of the story and asked us to write a short paper giving our conclusion to the issue (was it the lady or the tiger?) with evidence and explanations to support our thesis.  But that wasn't the end of the surprise: as we were about to walk out the door, he suddenly added, "And there IS a right answer!"  Well, this was news to me; there certainly is no official right answer.  

So I went back to my dorm, reread the story, underlining, writing notes in the margins, and so on, and finally came up with my "right" answer.  And the funny thing was, the professor was correct!  Now that I was a better reader, paying careful attention to the details and the characterization, it was absolutely obvious that there could only be one thing behind that door--and I'm NOT telling you!  

So this taught me two interesting things: first, that what had seemed a rather cool idea, a story that had two endings and asked you to choose one for yourself, was really not what the story was about.  It might have seemed that way to my elder brother and me as children, but that was really not the main "point" of the story.  And second, that the skills one learns about how to read, to pay attention to details, to word choices, to characterization, perhaps (though maybe not in this case) to symbols--these are what the story is really about; this is what makes the story so fascinating.  English teachers and professors call such skills "Close Reading."  In a sense, by not "ending" the story, the author was presenting us with a brainteaser, a puzzle, but not one without an answer--rather the answer was there to be found if you knew how to look for it!  

In another class with the same professor (when you find a good one, keep taking classes with that person if possible!), we read D.H. Lawrence's novel Sons and Lovers.  I recall staying up late to finish the book on time and then reporting to the class.  Now I'd read it, and tried to think about it; however, I was simply astounded by the brilliant lecture the professor gave explicating the book.  I was so impressed that I went up to him after class and sort of complained: "I read it.  I thought about it.  And I didn't see any of that stuff you pointed out today in class until you pointed it out, and then I saw it was all true.  What's wrong with me?"  His answer was one of the most important moments in my education: "But you're only a freshman!" he said.  "Maybe, by the time you graduate, you'll learn how to read a book."  

Now I was a freshman in college at the time.  So years later, when I became a high school teacher, I used to remind myself of this story and even tell my students about it.  "I was a freshman in college; you are only sophomores in high school!"  Still, my motivation in becoming a teacher was the hope that my students would know a lot more about how to read a book when they got to college than had been taught to me in high school.  This is why teachers get frustrated when students ask, "But why can't we just read the story?"  To an English teacher, the fun of reading a story isn't just the plot, or humor, or characters--the fun is analyzing the text and seeing things that other people who just "read the story" might miss.

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How are people punished or rewarded under the king's system of justice in "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

"The Lady or the Tiger?" by Francis Richard Stockton posits a quasi-mythical kingdom in which the king has absolute power. This king created an arena modeled on the Roman arenas. Criminals were placed in the arena and had to choose between two doors. Behind one door was a ferocious man-eating tiger and behind the other door was a beautiful woman. There was no way for the criminal to know which was behind which door, and thus the choice was random, rather like flipping a coin.

If the criminal chose the tiger, he would be killed and eaten. If he chose the woman, he would be obliged to marry her. One should note that this kingdom must either have lacked female criminals or permitted same-sex marriage for this system to be universally applicable.

In some ways, this is based on a notion that chance reflected the will of the gods, and echoes such practices as the Athenian selection of magistrates by lot. 

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What is the king's system of punishment in "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

In this story, the king uses what the narrator calls "poetic justice," meting out justice in a large ampitheater he had built for that very purpose. The accused is taken into the ampitheater and before a great crowd has to choose between two doors. Out of one will come a hungry tiger, who will devour the man. In this case, the man is considered guilty of the crime to which he had been accused. If the man selects the other door, a woman will come out, chosen to be as perfect as possible a mate for the man. If the man picks this door, he is considered innocent and would be expected to marry the woman who emerges, even if he already had a wife.

As we know, the daughter of the king has it in her power to signal to her lover which door to pick.

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