The Lady or the Tiger?


Frank Stockton

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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 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…

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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…

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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…

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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…

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By the end of the story, the narrator leaves open the question as to whether the princess directs the young man to the lady or the tiger, thereby putting us in a position of judgment: “Did the tiger come out of that door, or the lady?” Many readers take this as an invitation for us to decide whether the young man is greeted by the lady or the tiger, but doing so would be just…

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