The Lady or the Tiger?

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Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Charles Scribner's Sons edition of The Lady or the Tiger? published in 1884.
The Lady or the Tiger? Quotes

In the very olden time there lived a semi-barbaric king, whose ideas, though somewhat polished and sharpened by the progressiveness of distant Latin neighbors, were still large, florid, and untrammeled, as became the half of him which was barbaric. He was a man of exuberant fancy, and, withal, of an authority so irresistible that, at his will, he turned his varied fancies into facts.

Related Characters: The king
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote introduces us to the world of the short story. The phrase "in the very olden time," like the traditional "once upon a time," lets us know that the story we're about to read is something of a fairy tale or folk tale.

The king's "Latin neighbors" are the Ancient Romans, who lived in a great and powerful civilization. They were progressive in some ways – for example, in the way they organized their society (as a republic before it became an empire) and sense of civic virtue – but Rome was barbaric in many ways as well. They waged brutal wars of conquest, tortured political prisoners in spectacularly awful ways, and entertained the public with gruesome gladiatorial combat in the Coliseum, which is what inspired the king to build his arena. The narrator, then, is being a bit ironic in pointing to "the progressiveness" of Rome, suggesting that notions of barbarism and civilization are, to some extent, relative.

The king himself is "florid," that is, excessively and elaborately flowery in speech and gesture, which the story associates with the strong and somewhat uncontrolled nature of what it calls "barbarism." The King is also described as being godlike in being able to turn "fancies into facts." On one hand, this refers to the king's total power within his kingdom: whatever he wants to happen will happen. At the same time, another way of reading this story is as an allegory for God's relationship to the world, in which the king is God and the arena is the world he's created and peopled. 

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The arena of the king...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.

Related Symbols: The Public Arena
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote introduces the key setting of the story, the king's public arena. The arena is modeled on the Roman Coliseum, where gladiators fought and Christians were martyred. The king's arena is "an agent of poetic justice," in that it is seen by the king and his subjects as giving fitting rewards and punishments to those who deserve them. 

But the narrator is being ironic in calling the arena an agent of poetic justice, for there is no such thing as justice determined by chance. Chance gives rewards and punishments without regard for what people deserve – which is the very opposite of justice.

The architecture of the arena reminds us how little spectators there really see of what goes on. Sitting in the "encircling galleries," they may think that they have an omniscient view – but they don't. There are "mysterious vaults" and "unseen passages" that conceal important things. The climax of the story turns on just such an unseen passage, to use this phrase metaphorically now, in which we aren't told whether the king's daughter has arranged for her lover to meet with a lady or tiger in the arena.

The decisions of this tribunal [held in the public arena] were not only fair, they were positively determinate: the accused person was instantly punished if he found himself guilty, and, if innocent, he was rewarded on the spot, whether he liked it or not. There was no escape from the judgments of the king's arena.

Related Characters: The king
Related Symbols: The Public Arena
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

Trial by arena can result in one of two "decisions": the accused is either eaten by a tiger (in which case the king and his subjects believe that "chance" has determined that the accused was guitly) or rewarded with a marriage (innocent).

This, of course, is not fair at all. To be fair, a justice system must first determine whether or not we're guilty, and only then may it punish or reward us appropriately. But the king's arena punishes or rewards first, only for guilt or innocence to be deduced after the fact. The narrator uses "fair" ironically and with a bit of humor, then, although he's right to say that being eaten or married off is a "positively determinate" outcome – that is, an outcome that settles the matter unambiguously. 

One final irony we should point out is that the reward of being married off may very well be a punishment. After all, a man determined to be innocent is rewarded "whether he liked it or not." This casts even further doubt on the fairness of the king's arena.

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…

Related Characters: The audience
Related Symbols: The Public Arena
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

The king's subjects love the arena; it is a source of entertainment for them, just as the Coliseum entertained the Romans, and just as sporting events entertain people today. The arena attracts people through the spectacle of "a bloody slaughter or a hilarious wedding," and also by creating suspense for the audience as to which outcome will come to pass. In their excitement, however, the king's subject seem to forget that the people in the arena are not performers, but real people facing life-changing consequences no matter what happens. 

From another perspective, the story implicates us, its readers, in taking pleasure in other people's confusion and pain. We enjoy the suspense of the arena just as much as its fictional audience does. But the narrator doesn't let us enjoy that suspense without complicating it – and he complicates it precisely by not telling us what happens and keeping us always in suspense! 

Of course, everybody knew that the deed with which the accused was charged had been done. He had loved the princess, and neither he, she, nor any one else, thought of denying the fact; but the king would not think of allowing any fact of this kind to interfere with the workings of the tribunal, in which he took such great delight and satisfaction. No matter how the affair turned out, the youth would be disposed of, and the king would take an aesthetic pleasure in watching the course of events…

Related Characters: The king, The princess, The young man
Related Symbols: The Public Arena
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

The king's daughter, a passionate young princess, passionately loved a young man beneath her station. The king was outraged by this crime, and decreed that the young man should face his trial in the arena.

We might think that a trial is hardly what is called for in this case. Everyone in the kingdom knew about the love affair between the princess and the young man, which neither of them would have even denied. It is absurd to put someone on trial who's already pleaded guilty – but this is precisely what the king does, because he is delighted by the spectacle of the trials themselves and because he can do whatever he wants.

"Aesthetic pleasure" is the pleasure people experience when perceiving something beautiful, like a work of art. The king does not think that justice and "aesthetic pleasure" are incompatible – but they are, because the workings of justice should rarely, if at all, be pleasing in the same way that a play or movie or story is pleasing. The reality of justice is seldom so clean or satisfying as a story. States in which violence is treated as a work of art tend to rely on terror in governing their people.

A door beneath the royal party opened, and the lover of the princess walked into the arena. Tall, beautiful, fair, his appearance was greeted with a low hum of admiration and anxiety. Half the audience had not known so grand a youth had lived among them. No wonder the princess loved him! What a terrible thing for him to be there!

Related Characters: The princess, The young man, The audience
Related Symbols: The Public Arena
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

For having a love affair with the princess, the young man is subjected to trial by arena. He is handsome, and the audience immediately sympathizes with him as a result. This suggests that the spectators are rather superficial – they should sympathize with the young man because he's being treated unjustly by the king, not because he's "tall, beautiful, fair."

The audience members seem to understand that the relationship between the princess and the young man is perfectly natural, maybe even to be encouraged. We might feel the same, especially since we're so used to the formula where young lovers are cruelly kept from one another by their tyrannical parents, as in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Despite the audience's "anxiety," though, and despite thinking that it's "terrible" for the young man to be in the arena, the audience are content to watch him suffer. Just as an audience of Romeo and Juliet might find pleasure in the deadly "star-crossed" love of the two lover, the audience in the story takes pleasure in the young man's trial as if he is a character in a drama. When such violence is treated as art, the viewer ceases to view the person suffering that violence as a person, and what is awful and unjust becomes just another thing to enjoy.

Had it not been for the moiety of barbarism in her nature it is probable that the lady would not have been there, but her intense and fervid soul would not allow her to be absent on an occasion in which she was so terribly interested.

Related Characters: The princess
Page Number: 6-7
Explanation and Analysis:

In attendance at the young man's trial is not only the king but also the princess. She wouldn't have been there if she didn't have "the moiety of barbarism in her nature," that is, if she weren't half-barbaric like her father ("moiety" is an equal half of something). 

The king is "interested" in the young man's trial in the sense that it gives him "aesthetic pleasure." So is the audience, even though they think it "terrible" that the young man should be subjected to the arena. The princess is "terribly interested" in the trial in a much different sense. She cannot witness the young man's trial as a drama, because she is passionately in love with him, and because no matter what happens to him she will be heartbroken. In playing on these two senses of "interested" – the aesthetic and the deeply heartfelt – the narrator emphasizes how inappropriate aesthetic interest is in the case of young man.

She knew in which of the two rooms, that lay behind those doors, stood the cage of the tiger, with its open front, and in which waited the lady… Gold, and the power of a woman’s will, had brought the secret to the princess.

Related Characters: The princess
Related Symbols: The Public Arena
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

As has never happened before in the history of the arena, someone watching the young man's trial knows which door holds the lion and which the lady. This someone is the princess herself. This points to yet another flaw in the arena's justice–the rich and privileged princess can buy certainty in the arena, whereas less privileged people must rely on luck.

Just as the king believes he should get what he wants, the princess believes the same. She believes not in the law or justice, but in her own will and power.

The lengths to which the princess goes to get this information is a testament to the power of her love for the young man. But this leads to a further complication: how will a princess with such a powerful love but also a "barbaric" belief in her own right to get what she wants react to the prospect of her lover marrying another woman if he survives?

The only hope for the youth in which there was any element of certainty was based upon the success of the princess in discovering this mystery; and the moment he looked upon her, he saw she had succeeded, as in his soul he knew she would succeed.

Related Characters: The princess, The young man
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

During his trial in the arena, the young man looks to the princess for guidance, because in his soul he knew that she'd learn which door in the arena held which fate.

But what "element of certainty" can he possibly expect? We might assume that the young man wants to live and not die, and so the certainty he might desire is that he's opening the door to the lady and not the door to the tiger. But this reading itself is very uncertain. In the first place, the princess's passionate love for the young man makes her decision impossible to guess: does she love the young man enough that he leads him to life, or does she love him enough that she cannot live with the prospect of him marrying another? Furthermore, we can't even be certain that we know what the young man desires. Maybe he couldn't live without the princess either, and would prefer the tiger's jaws to a forced marriage with someone other than her.  

Now, the point of the story is this: Did the tiger come out of that door, or did the lady?
The more we reflect upon this question, the harder it is to answer. It involves a study of the human heart which leads us through devious mazes of passion, out of which it is difficult to find our way.

Related Characters: The princess
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator ends the story not with certainty and finality, but with uncertainty and an open question. During the young man's trial in the arena, did the princess direct him to the lady or the tiger?

The narrator anticipates that we might be overeager for closure. He reminds us that we shouldn't answer this question with the answer we find most pleasing, nor should we answer this question as though we get to decide the young man's fate. For it is the princess, and not us, who has that burdensome privilege. To answer the question, then, we must study "the human heart," specifically the princess's heart. But the more we study her heart, the more we lose ourselves in "devious mazes of passion." The image of the maze recalls the "mysterious vaults" and "unseen passions" that the narrator used to describe the arena itself earlier in the story, as if to remind us that the whole world poses questions to us every day as unanswerable as the one the narrator leaves us with here. Do we ever have enough information to give a definitive answer to questions about human motive and intent and passion?

The narrator doesn't answer his own question, and perhaps we would be wise to leave it unanswered, too, content instead to dwell in the vast, impenetrable mystery of the human heart.

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