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.
Uncertainty, Love, and Trust Theme Icon

From one perspective, the public arena symbolizes broad aspects of the human condition: we live in a world full of choices, but we are uncertain as to what choices lead to what consequences, just as the young man faces a stark choice between life and death, though which door in the arena holds which is a mystery to him. And, in the arena as in some visions of life, people blunder through their choices randomly for the most part, and the consequences of their choices have little or nothing to do with their just deserts.

However, the young man finds himself in a unique situation: he is in love with the princess, and she loves him. Moreover, she has the unprecedented power to help him navigate with certainty the choices before him, for she knows where the lion is, and where the lady. Her love for the young man motivated the princess to acquire this knowledge—but her love also complicates the decision before her. Can she live with herself if her direction leads the young man to death? And, conversely, can she live with herself if the young man is not part of her life but another woman’s? The narrator suggests that all authentically passionate love emerges from a barbaric element in human nature, which perhaps explains why the princess’s love for the young man could plausibly lead her to sacrifice him to the tiger.

Indeed, in a cruel double bind, it is precisely because the young man loves the princess and she him that he trusts her—but the princess’s love is so strong as to make her, in a sense, untrustworthy. Like the reader at the ambiguous end of the story, the young man is in a position to judge the princess’s motives when she motions him to the door on the right, and in his love for her he trusts her completely, opening the door she would have him open. But the question arises: does the young man know the princess well enough to be justified in trusting her? And, more eerily, can anybody ever know another well enough to trust them with certainty? We as readers of the story tend to assume, for example, that the young man would prefer to be married than cruelly ripped to shreds by a tiger—but do we know him well enough to make this assumption? Perhaps he, like the princess, could not live without his love, and would rather the tiger than the lady himself. Uncertainty reigns over all decisions and judgments in the story, and trust is paradoxically both generated and dissolved by love.

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Uncertainty, Love, and Trust 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 Uncertainty, Love, and Trust.
The Lady or the Tiger? Quotes

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.


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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.