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 is the king's favorite activity in "The Lady, or The Tiger?"

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The semi-barbaric King in “The Lady or the Tiger” uses the arena as a system of justice.  Unlike the ancient Romans who had gladiators fighting and lions eating Christians, the King doles out his brand of justice to the amusement of a crowd who doesn’t know what is going to happen.

Frank Stockton, the author, describes how the arena is used when he writes, “This vast amphitheater, with its encircling galleries, its mysterious vaults, and its unseen passages, was an agent of poetic justice, in which crime was punished, or virtue rewarded, by the decrees of an impartial and incorruptible chance.”

The arena is a theater of execution or reward where poetic justice or where one gets what one deserves takes place.  By having justice carried out by chance, the outcome of a person’s punishment or reward is left up to fate rather than a fair trial where one can prove one’s innocence. This is what makes the society in the story “semi-barbaric.”

In the case of the Princess, only she (after bribing a guard) knows that behind one door is a tiger and behind the other a beautiful woman.  The Princess can signal to her lover the door with the tiger thus killing him, or she can signal to the door with the beautiful women, sparing his life but losing him to another woman. It is not by “chance” in this instance, for the Princess knows what’s behind each door.  However, the moral decision she makes will determine if she is “civilized” or has given in to her “barbaric” heritage.

(I've often wondered how the King in the story handles giving out rewards in the arena.  Are there two doors where behind each door a different fate is found?  Is there a pot of gold behind one door and something horrible behind the other? Who knows?)

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