The Lady or the Tiger?

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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.
Justice, Impartiality, and Bias Theme Icon

The king’s administration of justice rests on a principle not unlike that held by Western civilization, namely, that justice should be blind, impartially administered. However, the king pursues this principle to its logical extreme: in his kingdom, rather than use judges or juries, “the decrees of an impartial and incorruptible chance”—in the form of a public arena in which the accused must choose between two doors, and depending entirely on luck will end up marrying a beautiful lady or be devoured by a hungry tiger. Luck alone determines punishment or reward. Of course, it is true that chance or luck can’t be biased or emotionally manipulated or bribed like human judges can, and in this sense the king’s method is absolutely impartial. However, we might argue nonetheless that chance has nothing to do with justice: after all, in the king’s public arena, a vicious murderer might open the door to a lady, while an innocent person might open the door to a tiger. Even though punishment and reward are impartially rendered in these cases, it is safe to say that they are not justly rendered.

It would seem, then, that no justice system can be absolutely impartial: for justice to be rendered at all, human beings who are by their very nature susceptible to bias must render it. The story investigates this proposition when the princess finds herself in a position to pass judgment on her lover, the young man, who has been accused of a crime and made to face the trial of the public arena. The Princess, in this case, has found out which door in the arena leads to punishment (the tiger) and which to reward (the lady). Yet just as chance is absolutely impartial, so is the princess absolutely biased and deeply conflicted in her interests. On the one hand, she loves the young man and despairs at the thought of his bloody painful death; on the other hand, the idea that her lover should marry another woman enrages her with jealousy. Given this, she seems just as incapable of rendering justice as pure chance would be. However, if absolute impartiality, such as that offered by chance in the arena, and passionate love, such as the princess’s for the young man, both compromise justice, where is justice to be found in this world at all? The story does not answer this question.

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Justice, Impartiality, and Bias 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 Justice, Impartiality, and Bias.
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.

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.

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.