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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The Lady, or the Tiger? Themes

The main themes in “The Lady, or the Tiger?” are choices and consequences, power and judgement, and love and jealousy.

  • Choices and consequences: The king’s justice system is based on choices and consequences. Those who choose to commit a crime must then choose the door that will decide their fate.
  • Power and judgement: The king has absolute power, and he utilizes it to establish a system of judgement that absolves him of any blame.
  • Love and jealousy: The princess’s jealousy of the lady complicates her love for the courtier, and calls into question the power of love to overcome selfishness. 


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Choices and Consequences

Choice, or at least the illusion of it, underlies every aspect of “The Lady, or the Tiger?” On a narrative level, the king's arena is designed entirely around the interplay between choices and consequences. When someone commits a crime, they are placed in the arena and must decide their own fate by choosing a door. The king’s tribunal can be interpreted as the logical extreme of a legal system that seeks to remove human bias from the equation; since the accused is responsible for choosing which door to open, the king and the audience can be absolved of blame for the end result. 

However, the true choice does not take place during the tribunal. Punishment is a foregone conclusion no matter what the result of the trial; behind one door is death, and behind the other door is an unasked for bride. Either way, the accused criminal’s life is irrevocably changed. The criminal’s choice occurs the moment they decide to commit a crime. Everything past that point relies upon the king’s judgement and pure chance. The king is responsible for sentencing the accused criminals, and he is the one who writes the laws, making him the primary power behind the punishment. Furthermore, the story indicates that he actively enjoys the aesthetics of the arena. The tribunal doubles as a form of entertainment for both the king and the audience, making the choice between the doors insignificant in the face of the broader spectacle of the king’s vision of justice.

This dynamic is altered during the courtier’s trial, as the princess’s foreknowledge of the doors’ contents upends the luck-based nature of the tribunal. She alone has the ability to determine the courtier’s fate, and she must make the choice between sending him to his death and sending him into the arms of another woman. However, the outcome of her choice is left ambiguous. Instead, Stockton asks readers to determine the outcome, placing the final burden of choice on them.

Power and Judgement

From a purely philosophical standpoint, the king’s tribunal is the ultimate form of poetic justice; however, the tribunal does not exist within a vacuum. Though the ultimate decision between the doors lies with the accused, the laws of the land and the choice of sentencing is in the hands of the king. The flaw of the system is not in the method of judgement, but rather in the absolute authority of the king to subject anyone he finds disagreeable to the whims of chance. In the case of the young courtier, his guilt in loving the princess is not in question; however, whether his love is truly criminal is subject to debate. According to the king, the mere act of engaging in a consensual, reciprocal relationship with the princess is enough to condemn the courtier. Yet one is left to wonder whether the same situation would still be declared criminal if it did not involve the king’s daughter. 

The ability of the tribunal to deliver unbiased justice is further complicated when the young courtier is placed on trial, as his lover, the princess, disrupts the chance-based nature of the tribunal by learning what is behind each door in advance. No more can the tribunal claim to be solely in the hands of the accused, nor can the ultimate judgment be said to be fate at work. Instead, the princess has made herself judge, jury, and executioner to her lover. It is no longer the courtier’s choice, or even the king's desire, that matters; the princess has all of the power and she alone decides whether the...

(This entire section contains 908 words.)

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courtier lives or dies.

Love and Jealousy

Love and jealousy are presented as extensions of one another, and the capacity for betrayal is only deepened by the emotional stakes of the courtier’s trial. No one would deny the love between the princess and the courtier, and the courtier’s obvious faith in the princess makes itself known when he unhesitatingly chooses the door that she indicates. The two young lovers are presented as being able to understand one another without the use of words, highlighting the depth of their bond.

However, it is this exact connection that sparks passionate jealousy within the princess. She is possessive of her lover, and she greets the idea of him marrying another woman with despair and anger. The beautiful lady chosen to be the courtier’s bride is direct competition in the princess’s eyes, and the princess questions whether she could stand to watch her beloved fall into the lady’s arms. The princess’s love is not selfless; as she agonizes over the decision regarding her lover's fate, she does not focus on the outcome for him, but rather the outcome for herself. Though she does love the courtier, she also knows that she will lose him one way or another. Rather than gracefully accepting this loss and sending him into the lady’s waiting arms, she instead contemplates whether it might be better to preserve him for herself in death. The conclusion of the story is left intentionally ambiguous, as the princess's decision is not a simple one. Both outcomes are horrifying, so readers are left to wonder whether the princess allowed her love for the courtier to overcome her jealousy, or whether she chose to spare herself the pain of seeing her lover with another woman.