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.
The Danger of Treating Life as Art Theme Icon

Since the public arena doesn’t administer justice at all, really, we might wonder why the king instituted it in the first place, and why his subjects in the audience continue to tolerate it. The story suggests that both king and subject do so because they are pleased and entertained by what they witness in the arena, be it “a bloody slaughter or a hilarious wedding.” Both treat what happens in the arena as a work of art, a spectacular drama taut with suspense that evokes pity and terror if the accused opens the door to the tiger, or that evokes relief and laughter and merriment if the accused opens the door to the lady. In this sense, the audience of the trial in the story mirrors us as the story’s readers: we are watching a drama unfold that interests us and gives us pleasure, even as we squirm with anxiety wondering what the young man’s fate will be.

However, the story goes on to make a dark point: the audience at the arena becomes so pleased and entertained by what they witness that they seem to forget that down below on trial are not actors but real people filled with real dread, in an unjust and potentially deadly situation. When we treat life like art, it becomes all too easy to ignore human suffering and even to become complicit in it. What’s worse is that the audience recognizes the injustice of the arena—they mourn for those who die there, “that one so young and fair, or so old and respected, should have merited so dire a fate”—yet they never protest or boycott the institution, or intervene to protect their fellow subjects. During the young man’s trial, the audience is struck by what a grand figure he is, and thinks collectively, “What a terrible thing for him to be there”—but they’d rather watch him suffer than help to get him out. If chance and passion both compromise the administration of justice, pleasure in drama and spectacle numbs us to injustice.

The ambiguity at the end of the story invites us to reflect on our own feelings about the young man’s dire situation—were we energized by the danger and eager for bloodshed or hilarity, or were we troubled by the political implications of what we saw, the lack of justice and its attendant human suffering?

The Danger of Treating Life as Art ThemeTracker

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The Danger of Treating Life as Art 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 The Danger of Treating Life as Art.
The Lady or the Tiger? Quotes

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! 


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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.

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.