The Lady or the Tiger?

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The Public Arena Symbol Analysis

The Public Arena Symbol Icon
Though architecturally modeled on the Roman Coliseum, the public arena in “The Lady or the Tiger?” has a purpose that emanated from the semi-barbaric king’s mind alone: the absolutely impartial administration of justice by means of “incorruptible chance.” Those condemned to trial by arena are simply presented with two identical doors: one door conceals a suitable lady whom the condemned will marry whether he likes it or not, while the other door conceals a ferocious tiger that invariably kills the man who releases it.

The Public Arena Quotes in The Lady or the Tiger?

The The Lady or the Tiger? quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Public Arena. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Barbarism and Civilization Theme Icon
). 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

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.

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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.

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?

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The Public Arena Symbol Timeline in The Lady or the Tiger?

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Public Arena appears in The Lady or the Tiger?. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
The Lady or the Tiger?
Barbarism and Civilization Theme Icon
Justice, Impartiality, and Bias Theme Icon
...considered only “semi-barbaric” and not wholly barbaric is that he adopted from his Latin neighbors the public arena . Barbarically, however, the king staged not gladiatorial contests or Christian martyrdoms in his arena,... (full context)
Justice, Impartiality, and Bias Theme Icon
The Danger of Treating Life as Art Theme Icon
The public arena worked like this: when a subject was accused of a crime that interested the king,... (full context)
Justice, Impartiality, and Bias Theme Icon
The Danger of Treating Life as Art Theme Icon
If the accused opened the door leading to the tiger in the public arena , the tiger would invariably kill him, iron bells would sadly toll, hired mourners would... (full context)
Justice, Impartiality, and Bias Theme Icon
The Danger of Treating Life as Art Theme Icon
Uncertainty, Love, and Trust Theme Icon
This public arena , then, was “the king’s semi-barbaric method of administering justice.” It was perfectly fair in... (full context)
Barbarism and Civilization Theme Icon
The Danger of Treating Life as Art Theme Icon
Uncertainty, Love, and Trust Theme Icon
...was imprisoned for daring to love the princess; his trial was to be held in the public arena . Everyone, from the king to his subjects, was especially interested in this case, because... (full context)
Justice, Impartiality, and Bias Theme Icon
The Danger of Treating Life as Art Theme Icon
The public arena was stocked with the most savage tiger and the most beautiful woman suitable to the... (full context)
The Danger of Treating Life as Art Theme Icon
Uncertainty, Love, and Trust Theme Icon
...the trial arrived. A huge audience gathered to watch. The young man was released into the public arena , to the admiration and anxiety of the audience—they thought him a grand youth, and... (full context)
Justice, Impartiality, and Bias Theme Icon
Uncertainty, Love, and Trust Theme Icon
...even the king – she had used gold and willpower to learn which door in the public arena held which fate. Not only did the princess know which door held which fate, but... (full context)
Justice, Impartiality, and Bias Theme Icon
Uncertainty, Love, and Trust Theme Icon
From the floor of the public arena , the young man looked into the princess’s eyes and knew at once—for so it... (full context)