The dilemma of a difficult and dramatic moral choice has long been known to captivate the human mind, and writers know this well. The short story The Lady or the Tiger? By Frank R. Stockton is a perfect example of an almost quintessential dilemma on the most thrilling of choices: the one which involves love and death. The story is set in an unspecified land ruled by a semi-barbaric king and describes a peculiar legal procedure invented by him based on his own understanding of justice: an arena where the convicts are tried. Instead of the trial by battle, the accused are offered to choose one of two doors: behind one, a fierce tiger awaits to kill the unfortunate human, and behind the other – salvation in the form of a lady who would become his wife.
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However, once the lover of the king’s daughter is given the dreadful choice, the princess secretly interferes with the chance and gives the man a hint to open the door on the right. And while it is tempting and comforting to consider the possibility of her sparing his life instead of directing him to his death, upon closer inspection there is little doubt that she has guided him to the tiger.
It is tempting to imagine that she wanted to save him. But this version is mostly driven by the reader’s humanity. The text, on the other hand, offers little backing to the happy ending. We know that the princess loves the man dearly. We also witness her hesitation at the end of the story. She hesitates to imagine the “cruel fangs of the tiger” (4).
However, these are not her thoughts. Instead, they are speculations by the author. And this short part is the only proof of her compassion. She is passionate, there is no doubt about it. But her passion is burning, not heart-warming. She is determined, but mostly for her own sake, not for him.
On the other hand, her barbaric nature is prominent throughout the story. She is resolute about making things go her way. For instance, she obtains the secret of the doors with “gold, and the power of a woman’s will” (3). A whole paragraph is devoted to her anguish and jealousy triggered by other girl’s mere glances at her man. She thinks he even returns them. However, she acknowledges that all this may exist only in her imagination.
Besides, she did not come to the trial to support the man – she was “terribly interested” (3). There is even a phrase “She had lost him, but who should have him?” (4). It clearly shows that for her there is no happy ending. She does not show any respect for his life. In her eyes, the choice is between redemption and a tantalizing “justice”. The latter will become the salvation to him and the torture to her.
The princess is truly the daughter of a barbaric king. She displays all the features that suggest power, determination, calculation, and passion. It is humanity and compassion that she is lacking, at least on the pages of the story. But power and courage are not enough to overcome the desire for vengeance if the heart lacks warmth. If by any chance it was the lady whom the man found behind the right door, it could be only by chance or a momentary burst of passion. If on the other hand, the princess acted upon a long-thought-out decision (and we are told by the author that she did), there is little doubt which decision it was: the tiger.
Stockton, Frank. The Lady or the Tiger?, 1882. Web.