Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Until Death Do Us Part: A Reflection on Love

In The Lady or the Tiger? Frank Stockton explores the impact of emotions on human decisions, especially when one must choose between passion and true love. http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/LadyTige.shtml

In the story, a barbaric king chooses to leave justice to divine law and orders an arena to be built. From that day on, when one of his subjects is accused of breaking laws or is found guilty of otherwise questionable behavior, the king condemns the poor soul to meet his destiny in the arena. Behind two doors of the arena hide both an aggressive tiger and a beautiful maiden. The prisoner himself chooses which door to unlatch, and his fate is sealed – he will either be killed by the tiger or married to the maiden. Either way, no human decision will have any weight on the outcome; if killed by the tiger the subject is believed to have been guilty and promptly punished, while if he makes it out alive, he immediately receives a reward for his innocence by marrying a beautiful woman.

It so happens that the king’s only daughter, a young woman just as intense as her father, falls in love with a handsome young fellow who is, unfortunately, not a noble man. When word of the forbidden affair gets to the king, he immediately orders the young man to be imprisoned and condemns him to be judged in the arena.

As the day of the final judgment approaches, a ferocious tiger and the most beautiful maiden in the kingdom are chosen, and both are hidden behind the doors. When everything is ready, the young man is led into the arena, where he bows in front of the king and his daughter before courageously taking his place in front of the two doors. Before pulling one of the levers, he meets his lover’s apprehensive gaze and waits for a sign. Now, the king’s daughter knows exactly which door hides the tiger and which door hides the maiden, but she’s torn in her decision – if she signals to the door hiding the tiger, her lover will die, while if she signals toward the door hiding the maiden he will be saved but he will be forced to marry the young girl whom she is already jealous of.

Finally she makes her choice, and subtly lifts her right arm only for her lover to see. Without a doubt, the young man approaches the right door and opens it. At this point the story ends, leaving the reader wondering whether the unfortunate young fellow will live or die. This quite ambiguous ending is intentional, and it triggers a reflection upon the type of emotions which rule our decisions. Which door do you think the young man opens, and why?

When my son and I read the story together, we had opposite ideas – I thought the princess indicated the door with the maiden, while my son believed she signaled the door with the tiger. When I asked him why, his answer was simple – the princess was jealous and she preferred to see her young lover dead rather than happy in the arms of another woman. When I explained the story to other people I know and posed the question to them, they answered the same way my son did.

Indeed, passion and jealousy are powerful forces, able to cloud our better judgment. Quite often, we subconsciously wish to control the people we claim to love, and the mere thought of our loved ones happy with someone else triggers feelings of self-doubt we are unprepared to deal with.

True love is not threatened by competition, and it shouldn’t fill us with a need to “own” people, but rather with a feeling of joy at the thought of seeing our loved ones happy, with or without us, similarly to the way we feel toward our children. We don’t have to physically be with someone to love them, as being in love shouldn’t be equal to being in need. Too often we look toward our outside world to find what we should seek within to fill the void, and unfortunately, many of those relationships meet an unfortunate ending.

I suppose the fate of the young man will forever remain in the eye of the beholder, and that each person will choose the ending most appropriate to their way of seeing love, but for myself I really hope the princess made the right decision and allowed her lover live.