‘The Lady or the Tiger’ by Frank Stockton: Short Story Analysis
‘The Lady or the Tiger’ is an allegorical fantasy fairy-tale short story penned by the famous nineteenth-century American writer Frank Stockton. It was published in 1882 in the magazine ‘The Century’. Frank Stockton was well known for his allegorical stories and fairy tales for children. However, his most famous work is this short story titled ‘The Lady or the Tiger’, which has even entered the English language as a phrase, something like a Catch 22 situation. The story is about the workings of people’s hearts and minds when they are in a tight situation. The story does not tell us what such people do when they are in a complex situation. Instead, it makes us try and guess what must have happened. A young barbaric princess is about to lose her lover, a handsome but lowly courtier. He must choose between two doors: neither door will return him to the barbaric princess. One door leads to a tiger who will devour him and the princess will horrifically lose her lover. However, if he chooses the other door, it will lead him to a beautiful maiden to whom he would be married off. As you can see, either way, the courtier will lose the barbaric princess. The short story tries to analyze the princess’s heart when she indicates to her lover which door he should choose. The courtier feels that the princess will only wish to save his life. However, that is not always the case in a Catch 22 situation.
The Lady or the Tiger is the question that is asked at the end of the story. Which door would that semi-barbaric princess lead her lover to: the tiger and death or the lady and life? This is a paradoxical question. When one tries to analyze the human mind, one realizes people try to do that which gives them peace, rather than that which makes them mourn for the rest of their lives. Many people in a Catch 22 situation choose to die rather than spend their lives miserably. It is how the heart and mind work, where the person adopts the lesser evil in such a situation. The barbaric princess must have indicated her lover to enter the door, which led to the tiger. She did this because she could not bear him belonging to anyone else in the world. In a way, his death would preserve him for her in a partial manner in a futuristic barbaric heavenly realm. She would not have been able to bear him in the arms of another woman, where only she would be the sufferer. It is evident from the text that the more terrible evil for the barbaric princess was to see her lover in the arms of the maiden or the lady than the tiger. This is because that is what human beings are like. They do everything and anything for their benefit and comfort.
There are obvious points from the text of the short story titled ‘The Lady or the Tiger’ which indicate that the barbaric princess must have made her lover choose the door to death by the claws of the tiger:
- She used to gnash her teeth and pull her hair to think of her lover in another woman’s arms.
- The barbaric princess was jealous of the woman selected to be her lover’s future wife because she was aware of their previous closeness.
- She would not be able to bear the happiness of their marriage while she would be the only one in torment.
- She would then be permanently away from her lover.
- She was selfish and hot-tempered like her father, the semi-barbaric king.
- She would only get nightmares if her lover were to be killed by the claws of the tiger. Other than that, the death of her lover would not have disconcerted or disturbed her to a great extent.
Frank Stockton gives us a detailed description of the semi-barbaric king, the father of the barbaric princess, to drill into our heads that she too would be as unreasonable, anger-filled, driven to passion, and ruthless in her love as her father. Her father dispensed justice in a very odd way, which is penned here in an ironic fashion that makes us laugh until we read about the barbaric princess and her lover. We tend to laugh when the behavior of the semi-barbaric king is described, but when we read about the difficult spot the princess was put into, it tends to creep us out. It creeps us out because it is scarier to delve into the human mind’s working than read a horror story. It is clear to us that the king and princess are brutal and they would not think rationally or emphatically, let alone sympathetically where the situation of the lover was concerned. I want to add here that often, it is the semi-civilized behavior of this whole charade of justice concocted by the semi-barbaric king that is the root of the true evilness of the short story.
I would go on to say that semi-civility originating as even the text implies from the Latinized so-called civilized world is the reason why such a ruthless, almost sordid justice system was applied to cases tried in the amphitheater. The king, because he was semi-civilized, created the idea of the two doors. If he were merely barbaric and just killed off his prisoners, the whole concept of the story would not have been so terrible. It is because he is civilized that the story is so haunting and malevolent. Therefore, civility and so-called Christian civilized behavior sometimes lead to even more sordid forms of justice. When only used half-heartedly, civility and good morals create monstrous institutions in society, making the dispensation of true justice challenging to carry out. If the king were not semi-civilized by his Latinized neighbors, he would have caused his daughter a bit less grief. However, by being semi-civilized, he was exacerbating the whole issue of justice.
Civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness.—Werner Herzog
Civilization began the first time an angry person cast a word instead of a rock.—Sigmund Freud
Do not be misled and think the civilization devised by the Latinized world is what the writer of this short story titled ‘The Lady or the Tiger’ Frank Stockton favors. Through this story, Frank is trying to tell us that we need to find a better system to make some sense out of our civilization’s chaos. What is more profound than civil behavior is the largely hidden iceberg of our psychology and chaotic comprehension of the evolving world. Therefore, the writer specifically asks us to look at the case through the barbaric princess’s mind. If we had not looked at it from her perspective, then the question was paradoxical in totality. This is because as many people there are on this Earth, there will be as many reasons for choosing the door to the tiger or the lady.
Coming to the topic of the courtier, he was shrewd and cunning. He was confident that his lover, the princess, would choose to save his life rather than kill him. He was confident that she loved him and would find out the secret of the doors. They were attuned to each other’s actions, so when he looked at her, he knew that she was aware which of the two doorways led to the lady. He was foolish and self-conceited to think that he would be saved. Notice that the fact that Stockton mentions that the barbaric princess and the courtier understood each other’s gestures so well indicates that they were true lovers and close to each other. It is the height of perplexity that the princess being so close to the courtier, would want to kill rather than save him. But when we are aware of the facts that jealousy and envy can poison the best of hearts and minds, it is not difficult for us to comprehend this barbaric princess’s mind who must have chosen the door to the tiger for her lover.
Coming to the theme of justice, the semi-barbaric king’s idea of dispensing justice was self-indulgent, fit for his own fancy, and simply ridiculous. Then again, there is a mention in the text that he instituted this method of dealing with his prisoners because he was semi-civilized. It conclusively proves that if civilization is only partially adopted, it cannot be the best dispenser of justice or any other human ideal.
Real freedom lies in wildness, not in civilization.—Charles Lindbergh
We will never have true civilization until we have learned to recognize the rights of others.—Will Rogers
A civilization which leaves so large a number of its participants unsatisfied and drives them into revolt neither has nor deserves the prospect of a lasting existence.—Sigmund Freud
Therefore, if there is complete justice, then there is civilization. When there is partial justice, then there can be no civilization. The semi-barbaric king’s whimsical justice is a high indictment of the values of justice. Dictators like him in this world operate their justice system to entertain themselves and keep the populace mentally occupied while justice is stomped dead in the dirt. In this story, like in our present times, we are engaged by our rulers and given a pacifier to keep us from trying to reform society, which is our solemn duty to do, especially when society is under a demagogue like this semi-barbaric king. Such demagogues convert their lies into fake facts that we as the community chew upon, trying to make sense of it while evil tramples down our rights. Unlike the fictional situation in this story, there should be no element of uncertainty or chance when dispensing justice. There should be no justice system concocted for the so-called ‘aesthetic pleasure’ of the rulers. If it is so, then there is something very terribly wrong with that justice system.
The princess moves her hand towards the right, and the courtier chooses the right door. How far was she ruled by civilized behavior and justice is left to us to conjecture. Indeed, this short story has been pondered upon by the literary and philosophical world ever since its publication. It is an unsolved riddle of sorts that can be discussed at great lengths and is truly a masterpiece of a short story.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing this short story by American writer Frank Stockton. I first read this short story in the year 2002 when I was a little girl in school. It was part of our seventh-grade literature syllabus, and it spooked the hell out of me. Another allegorical American short story that is good for students to read is Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It is part of my abridged ‘Rare Classics’ series, which you can buy here. I hope to read more American fiction and non-fiction bookish content in the coming days. I wish to celebrate the rich American literary heritage. I hope to read more works by Frank Stockton soon.
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