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 is the king's character and ruling style portrayed in "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

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In the story "The Lady, or the Tiger?" the king is defined as "semi-barbaric"; however, from his conduct in the narrative "barbaric" seems more appropriate.  For, the author's use of irony in his descriptions of the king suggest the cruelty of the ruler:

When everything moved smoothly, his nature was bland and genial; but whenever there was a little hitch, he was blander and more genial still, for nothing pleased him so much as to make the crooked straight, and crush down uneven places.

The reader is reminded of the lion who resides calmly until something occurs to upset him.  Then, the regal animal, who lies most of the day, becomes the threatening predator who proves that he is the "king of the beasts."  Likewise, the "semi-barbaric" king is only less barbaric when things go his way, which is to say that he is all barbaric, actually.

That the king punishes the young man for loving his daughter seems, of itself, cruel, selfish, and barbaric.  In addition, "there was no escape from the judgments of the king's arena."  This arena allows no freedom even after the accused is supposedly "freed" since even if the accused is not killed by the tiger, he must marry someone other than the one he has chosen. Such an arrangement is clearly barbaric and cruel. 

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So much can be read into the fact that the king is "semi-barbaric".  He does know right from wrong, but he chooses to ignore it and go with with whatever he fancies.  In a sense, this makes him, perhaps, the worse kind of character.  He does, in fact, know that his ways are evil and subject to incorrect chance, but he does not care.  He sees his method as a perfect fifty percent to fifty percent, so according to him, it is fair. 

Still, he has to know that this is a less than perfect system--in fact, it is a complete fallacy.

When we think about it, this may make him the most despicable and contemptible of characters.  He goes against whatever conscience he may have.

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How would you describe the character of the king and the way he rules his people in "The Lady, or the Tiger?" Do you think the narrator believes he is a good leader?

Bluntly stated, the king in Frank Stockton's short story "The Lady or the Tiger" is a dictator. He appears to make all the important decisions for his subjects without consulting any advisors or the people. Stockton writes:

He was greatly given to self-communing, and, when he and himself agreed upon anything, the thing was done.

The king believes that he alone knows what is best and that he can solve any problem. He is initially described as "semi-barbaric" and his idea of the arena is savage (men can be torn to pieces by a ferocious beast by choosing poorly). He is also a man who believes the world can be explained simply; it is either black or white. An accused subject is either guilty, if he opens the door of the tiger, or innocent, if he opens the door of the lady. The institution of the arena also reveals his idealism. The ideal of the justness of the arena is worth the fact that innocent men could meet their death. He's not ultimately worried about things being fair as long as the ideal of justice is met.

Stockton never reveals his opinion of the king. He simply describes how the king arrived at the concept of the arena. He does not editorialize about the equity of the king's justice, nor does he either praise or criticize the king's methods. Stockton does say the arena was a "popular" institution and that subjects came from far and near to witness the spectacle. Of course, it's difficult to say that sheer popularity makes the king a good leader.

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