Long ago, there lived a semi-barbaric king who, though influenced somewhat by the progressiveness of his “distant Latin neighbors” (presumably the Romans), nonetheless had grandiose ideas, an exuberant imagination, and governed his kingdom like a tyrant. He liked it when things went his way, and liked it even more when things didn’t, because he took great pleasure in making “the crooked straight.”
The king is like a god in his power, but not a benevolent one. He takes great pleasure in making the crooked straight because he enjoys more than anything exerting his will heroically—not only that, but he also enjoys the drama of conflict that he ultimately wins, which anticipates the pleasure he takes in his arena.
One reason the king is 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, but trials. His arena was “an agent of poetic justice,” where vice was punished and virtue rewarded “by the decrees of an impartial and incorruptible chance.”
Ironically, the king’s Latin neighbors are just as barbaric as he is, evinced by their gladiatorial contests and religious persecution. The narrator is also being ironic in calling the arena an agent of poetic justice, for there is no such thing as justice determined by chance. One might call it “impartial punishment”, or “blind punishment,” but not justice. The king’s “semi” barbarity involves the fact that he has created a system that even he himself cannot alter once it is set in motion; the “barbarity” remains in that the “justice” is no justice at all, but rather an enjoyment of the infliction of arbitrary rules, and possibly pain and death, upon a person.
The public arena worked like this: when a subject was accused of a crime that interested the king, an announcement would be issued that on an appointed day that subject’s trial would be held in the arena. When the day came, an audience would consequently assemble at the arena, into which would be released the subject on trial. In the arena were two identical doors, one on the right and one on the left; behind one of these was the fiercest tiger that could be found, and behind the other a lady suitable to become the accused’s wife. The subject could open whichever door he pleased, unguided save by chance.
The arena is massively entertaining, full of suspense. This is why the king only stages trials that interest him there, and why the people flock to witness the trials he stages. Of course, it is totally unjust: what if someone is placed in the arena whose alleged crime doesn’t merit the death penalty? Why should the innocent have the same odds as someone guilty of meeting with a horrible fate?
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 wail, and the audience would leave the arena with “downcast hearts,” sad “that one so young and fair, or so old and respected, should have merited so dire a fate.” If the accused opened the door leading to the lady, however, he would be instantly married to her, regardless of whether or not he already had a wife or wanted to marry at all; brass bells would happily ring, the audience would cheer, and the married man would lead his bride home on a path strewed with flowers.
Notice that the respective aftermaths of the accused meeting with either the lady or the tiger are parallel: punishment, bells, and audience response. This emphasizes the ritualistic and theatrical quality of trial by arena, as do the hired mourners. It is, further, ironic and darkly comic that someone could be “rewarded” with marriage who does not want to be married, indeed, who looks on marriage as a punishment.
This public arena, then, was “the king’s semi-barbaric method of administering justice.” It was perfectly fair in that the accused did not know which door held which fate, and in that the accused was instantly punished if he found himself guilty, instantly rewarded if he found himself innocent—also in that the accused had “the whole matter in his own hands.” The uncertainty of the accused’s fate lent interest to his trial—would the audience see “a bloody slaughter or a hilarious wedding”? This made the institution of the public arena very popular, both entertaining and pleasing.
Ideally, one’s innocence or guilt determines one’s consequences in a court of law; but in an ironic twist, in the arena it is the consequences of one’s actions that are retroactively taken to determine whether or not one deserved those consequences (if you picked the tiger by chance, then you were guilty). The audience is excited by uncertainty because it creates feelings of suspense—but in their excitement they forget that someone’s life is in the balance. The spectacle outweighs the humanity.
Now, the king had a daughter, the princess, as fanciful and passionate as her father. She had fallen in love with a young man, one of the king’s courtiers, and her inherited barbarism only made her love “exceedingly warm and strong.” Their love affair was happy for months—until the king discovered it. The young man 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 none like it had ever occurred before.
Although the barbaric element of passion in human nature gives rise to absurdities like the public arena, it also makes our love all the more strong, the story suggests—so perhaps passion is not in and of itself bad. Indeed, it is only when we have license to act however we want to under the influence of passion, as the king does, that problems arise. The king and his subjects anticipate this unusual trial because it is all the more dramatic, being unusual.
The public arena was stocked with the most savage tiger and the most beautiful woman suitable to the young man as determined “by competent judges.” Everyone knew the young man had indeed loved the princess, and not even he or the princess denied the fact, but the king would not allow this to interfere with the workings of his justice system. Either way the king would be happy, because the young man “would be disposed of,” and he himself would “take an aesthetic pleasure” in watching the trial unfold.
The competent judges of the lady for the arena are ironically superfluous: the young man has already judged the princess to be the woman for him. The king’s justice system is especially absurd in that it is totally unconcerned with evidence—even when that evidence supports his case! Aesthetic pleasure is a pleasure taken in the perception of beauty—the king witnesses trials as one would contemplate a work of art.
The day of 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 thought it terrible for him to be in the arena. The young man, as was customary, bowed to the king, but was looking all the while at the princess. She would not have been present at the trial were she less passionate and not “so terribly interested” in it, thinking of nothing else for days and nights on end.
Even though the audience recognizes how grand the youth is, they are so committed to the entertainment value of his trial that they do not rise to his defense. While the king has an aesthetic interest in the trial, the princess has a different kind of interest: she is passionately invested in the young man, but is also conflicted about which of his two possible fates she prefers.
So interested, in fact, was the princess, that – as no one before her ever had, not 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 she also knew who the lady was whom the young man might marry, “one of the fairest and loveliest of the damsels of the court.” And the princess hated this lady, having seen her, or having imagined that she had seen her, admiring the young man and talking with him.
The princess’s ability to learn the secret of which fate lies behind which door demonstrates further how unjust the king’s arena is: only a rich princess can buy certainty in the arena, whereas less privileged people must rely on luck. Yet it also suggests that people themselves are similarly unjust. After all, that the princess hates the lady deemed suitable for marriage to the young man makes her all the more biased and all the less trustworthy in terms of her ultimate decision about whether to save or doom him. This in turn casts some doubt on the idea of justice in general. The arena certainly doesn’t deliver justice, but it is impartial. The princess’s situation puts her in a position to deliver actual justice and save an innocent man, but it is almost impossible for her to be impartial. And if you follow this logic, it is in fact difficult for anyone to be completely impartial, even in a less difficult situation than that in which the Princess finds herself. So what, then, is the possibility for justice anywhere? And is there, perhaps, a semi-barbarian in all of us?
From the floor of the public arena, the young man looked into the princess’s eyes and knew at once—for so it is with lovers whose souls are one—that the princess knew which door held which fate. The young man had expected as much; his only hope was that the princess would succeed in discovering this information, and he knew in his soul that she would succeed, and she had. With a glance he asked the princess which door to open, and in a flash, unseen by anyone save the young man, the princess raised her right hand “and made a slight quick movement toward the right.” The young man rapidly walked to the door on the right and opened it.
Because he loves her, the young man trusts the princess absolutely; but does he know her well enough to really trust her? For that matter, do we know the young man well enough to say which fate he would prefer, lady or tiger, or which would be better for him? Perhaps gallantly doing as the princess bids him is his heart’s sole desire, and not survival. However, both the princess’s and the young man’s hearts remain shrouded in mystery; we do not know enough about them to pass judgment or have a real idea of what they will do.
But did the tiger came out, or the lady? The more we reflect on this question, the narrator says, the harder it is to answer. “It involves a study of the human heart which leads us through devious mazes of passion.” The question is not whether we would have the young man be punished or rewarded, but what we think the princess would decide to do. How often during her long “days and nights of anguished deliberation” had she seen with horror the tiger kill her lover—but how much oftener yet had she seen her lover marry another woman, which kindled furious jealousy in the princess’s heart!
The princess is torn between despair at her lover’s death and jealousy at his possible marriage to another woman; the narrator invites us to interpret how she decides her lover’s fate in the light of this dilemma. But the princess’s heart truly is a maze, and we know so little about the princess that any definitive interpretation of her decision would probably reflect more on us than on the princess herself.
The narrator announces, “it is not for me to presume to set myself up as the one person able to answer” whether the princess sent her lover to death or marriage, either one agonizing for her. So we are left with the question: “Which came out of the opened door—the lady, or the tiger?”
The narrator does not presume to know the princess’s heart, and perhaps, the story suggests by extension, we would be wise to do likewise, especially when confronted with an impenetrable ambiguity as we are here.