The Lady or the Tiger? Themes
by Francis Richard Stockton

The Lady or the Tiger? book cover
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The Lady or the Tiger? Themes

The main themes in “The Lady or the Tiger?” are choices and consequences, betrayal, and love and passion.

  • Choices and consequences: The king’s system of justice forces prisoners to make a choice that will decide their fate. The princess must make that choice for the courtier, and readers must decide which choice she makes.
  • Betrayal: The princess’s inner conflict centers on whether or not she will betray the courtier by pointing him toward his death.
  • Love and passion: The princess’s jealousy of the younger woman and the king’s sentencing of his daughter’s lover complicate the idea of love in the story.

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Frank R. Stockton said of this story, “If you decide which it was—the lady or the tiger—you find out what kind of person you are yourself.” He pretended that he himself did not know, that although he had planned a decided ending, he could not write one, “for I had not the advantage of being either semi-barbaric or a woman.” Thus, interpretation of this story relies on each reader’s decision, depending on how the reader views the world and human nature in it. The amount of faith the reader has in love and how much the reader believes that jealousy, hate, and pride may alter one’s love will affect that decision. What the reader imagines “semi-barbarism” (that of the princess) to be, as well as its opposite, will also affect his or her own interpretation of the ending.

However, certain points about the story are not open to interpretation. The princess does take the trouble, great trouble, to find out which door is hiding what. She is not her father’s daughter; she does not leave things to chance, for her heart is engaged. She does not hesitate to give direction, nor does her lover hesitate to rely on her. If he trusts her so, would she trust him less? Still, this is a fairy tale, with a fairy-tale way of presentation. Are such complexities of motivation that would lead the princess to indicate the door to the tiger right for such a tale? One may answer no, yet the course of true love is here pointedly crowned with hate and jealousy. A possible theme of “The Lady or the Tiger?” is the necessity of trust in another person’s humanity and love in a world where one never knows for certain what that person will do. The reader may wonder: “Which door would I have chosen?”


(Short Stories for Students)

Choices and Consequences

The "semi-barbaric" king has set up the arena in such a way that the prisoner's choice will determine his fate, regardless of his guilt or innocence. Either he will be eaten by a hungry tiger or he will instantly marry a beautiful girl. This element of choice absolves the king from any responsibility in the situation and intrigues the audience, who eagerly anticipates the prisoner's fate. Not knowing whether they will witness a bloody spectacle or a wedding puts them in a state of suspense. Because the young man is allowed to make his own choice, all others are absolved of guilt. Whether or not his choice and its consequence are just never occurs to them.

The king himself is described as one who likes "to make the crooked straight, and crush down uneven places." In the case of the young man, the king exercises an arbitrary judgement. Because the young man has chosen to fall in love with the princess, he must now face the consequence, which is to make another choice—one that means either life or death.

The princess has made a major choice as well: whether to direct her now-unattainable young man to the tiger who will destroy him or to the lady she hates. She has agonized about her decision and imagined the consequences of both choices in vivid detail. Stockton leaves it to the reader to ponder which choice she...

(The entire section is 879 words.)