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 of distant Latin neighbors,” presumably the Ancient Romans, whose Coliseum, the story implies, served as the model for the king’s own public arena of poetic justice “by which,” the narrator says, “his barbarism had become semified.” The arena civilized the kingdom specifically by hosting “exhibitions of manly and beastly valor, the minds of his subjects were refined and cultured.”
However, “The Lady or the Tiger” goes on to question and weaken any firm distinction we might draw between barbarism and civilization. After all, the story reminds us that the Roman Coliseum—that architectural wonder constructed by the great civilization of antiquity—served as a stage for bloody gladiatorial battles and the (alleged) execution of Christians by lion, all to the end of entertaining the public. Aren’t such practices just as, if not more, barbaric than the king’s in the story? Far from being progressive, the Romans themselves were, at least in some ways, semi-barbaric too. Our ideas of what is barbaric and what is civilized seem to be little more than accidents of historical affiliation—Western culture descended from Roman culture, and therefore Westerners are quick to excuse the practices of the Coliseum from barbarism, whereas similar practices like the king’s we denounce as barbaric.
But the story goes a step further than this: perhaps, it suggests, we are all of us no more than semi-barbaric. After all, the narrator repeatedly suggests that what really lies at the root of barbarism are the innate human appetite for pleasure and the capacity for intense passion—it is these characteristics which give rise to the king’s exuberant fancies, and these which at last make his daughter’s heart unknowable to us, full of “devious mazes of passion”. But who among us, the story’s readers, doesn’t want to be pleased, or is wholly devoid of passion? Like the audience in the story, we mourn bloody spectacle—but do we not also find such spectacle, in our heart of hearts, entertaining too, as the audience does? However, even if our wishes and passions do make us semi-barbaric, the story gives us reason for not wanting the case to be otherwise: it is, after all, the princess’s barbarism which makes her love so “exceedingly warm and strong.” The story is at last conflicted; although it regards the social expression of fiery passion, epitomized by the practices of the arena, to be barbaric and unjust, it also concedes that these same characteristics, privately expressed, strengthen human love and, in a sense, make life worth living.
Barbarism and Civilization ThemeTracker
Barbarism and Civilization Quotes in The Lady or the Tiger?
In the very olden time there lived a semi-barbaric king, whose ideas, though somewhat polished and sharpened by the progressiveness of distant Latin neighbors, were still large, florid, and untrammeled, as became the half of him which was barbaric. He was a man of exuberant fancy, and, withal, of an authority so irresistible that, at his will, he turned his varied fancies into facts.
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…
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.