The Lady or the Tiger?

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Barbarism and Civilization Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Barbarism and Civilization Theme Icon
Justice, Impartiality, and Bias Theme Icon
The Danger of Treating Life as Art Theme Icon
Uncertainty, Love, and Trust Theme Icon
Interpretation and the Interpreter Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Lady or the Tiger?, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Barbarism and Civilization Theme Icon

The king in “The Lady or the Tiger” is described as “semi-barbaric,” poised halfway, it would seem, between barbarism and civilization. He has grandiose ideas and fancies; he orders that even his most whimsical and unrealistic wishes be realized, and he is burningly, gustily passionate, just like his daughter, the princess. What makes the king semi-barbaric and not wholly barbaric is that his ideas have been “somewhat polished and sharpened by the progressiveness of distant Latin neighbors,” presumably the Ancient Romans, whose Coliseum, the story implies, served as the model for the king’s own public arena of poetic justice “by which,” the narrator says, “his barbarism had become semified.” The arena civilized the kingdom specifically by hosting “exhibitions of manly and beastly valor, the minds of his subjects were refined and cultured.”

However, “The Lady or the Tiger” goes on to question and weaken any firm distinction we might draw between barbarism and civilization. After all, the story reminds us that the Roman Coliseum—that architectural wonder constructed by the great civilization of antiquity—served as a stage for bloody gladiatorial battles and the (alleged) execution of Christians by lion, all to the end of entertaining the public. Aren’t such practices just as, if not more, barbaric than the king’s in the story? Far from being progressive, the Romans themselves were, at least in some ways, semi-barbaric too. Our ideas of what is barbaric and what is civilized seem to be little more than accidents of historical affiliation—Western culture descended from Roman culture, and therefore Westerners are quick to excuse the practices of the Coliseum from barbarism, whereas similar practices like the king’s we denounce as barbaric.

But the story goes a step further than this: perhaps, it suggests, we are all of us no more than semi-barbaric. After all, the narrator repeatedly suggests that what really lies at the root of barbarism are the innate human appetite for pleasure and the capacity for intense passion—it is these characteristics which give rise to the king’s exuberant fancies, and these which at last make his daughter’s heart unknowable to us, full of “devious mazes of passion”. But who among us, the story’s readers, doesn’t want to be pleased, or is wholly devoid of passion? Like the audience in the story, we mourn bloody spectacle—but do we not also find such spectacle, in our heart of hearts, entertaining too, as the audience does? However, even if our wishes and passions do make us semi-barbaric, the story gives us reason for not wanting the case to be otherwise: it is, after all, the princess’s barbarism which makes her love so “exceedingly warm and strong.” The story is at last conflicted; although it regards the social expression of fiery passion, epitomized by the practices of the arena, to be barbaric and unjust, it also concedes that these same characteristics, privately expressed, strengthen human love and, in a sense, make life worth living.

Barbarism and Civilization ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Barbarism and Civilization appears in each chapter of The Lady or the Tiger?. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Barbarism and Civilization Quotes in The Lady or the Tiger?

Below you will find the important quotes in The Lady or the Tiger? related to the theme of Barbarism and Civilization.
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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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.

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.