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In his short story ‘The Lady, or The Tiger?,’ Frank Stockton uses the compound adjective semi-barbaric to describe the main characters. In this lesson, you will learn what this term means while exploring Stockton’s examples of the term.

The Definition of Semi-Barbaric

Imagine yourself in a fancy restaurant. The candlelight gently plays on the elegant decor. Romantic music tinkles softly. You glance down at the leather-bound menu, and you sigh happily, anticipating the delicious food about to come your way.

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You think to yourself that this is a truly civilized experience. Then, suddenly, a harsh noise startles you, interrupting the loveliness. Brash voices and loud raucous laughter distract you, and you look towards the entrance of the restaurant wondering what kind of barbarian could make that kind of ruckus in a place as cultured and sophisticated as this one.Hold that image in your mind as we explore the definition of semi-barbaric. In the most simple and literal sense, the prefix semi- means half or partly, and barbaric means cruel or savage, or primitive and uncivilized, or even a combination of the two.

So, if you were to describe someone as semi-barbaric, you would be saying he or she is a little bit cruel or only slightly uncivilized. But can someone only be a little bit savage or only slightly primitive? Could those voices and laughter in the restaurant be only a little bit loud or slightly raucous? Let’s look closer at the word barbaric to decide.Barbaric stems from the word barbarian. Nowadays, you might playfully describe someone lacking manners or social graces as a barbarian, but the original meaning of the word is much more sinister than this current usage suggests. Barbarian is a very old word that originated in ancient Greece to describe all people who didn’t speak Greek. Over time, the word developed to mean something different, and eventually, barbarian became a descriptor for members of various tribes that did not live by ancient Greek or Roman traditions. These tribes were soon considered enemies of these old established civilizations since they brutally attacked empires and wreaked general havoc on so-called ‘civilized’ society.

Semi-Barbaric Behavior in Literature

So, you can’t have levels of brutality (from a little bit brutal to seriously brutal), or can you? After all, a brutal attack on an empire is difficult to describe in degrees, but perhaps people are more complicated than that? These questions are what Frank Stockton, the author of the short story ‘The Lady or The Tiger?,’ wants us to think about while reading about the semi-barbaric king and the princess, his semi-barbaric daughter.When readers meet the king in the first paragraph of the story, we soon learn that the king has built a public arena for his subjects. The king intends this arena to be a place of learning for his audience, not just a coliseum for viewing violent fights between man and beast.

For example, public reckonings to determine the guilt or innocence of potential criminals are held in the arena, but no court of law exists to decide if the accused is guilty or innocent. The accused simply opens one of two doors in the arena, knowing that behind one door awaits a ferocious tiger and certain death, if fate deems he is guilty; behind the other door waits a random maiden and marriage (or remarriage, if the criminal is already married), if his destiny is innocence. So somehow, despite the king’s lofty intentions for the arena, only very basic, easy-to-understand spectacles ensue in front of the audience.The narrator leaves it up to the reader to decide if the adjective ‘semi-barbaric’ suits the king or not: after all, the king’s treatment of potential criminals can’t really be described as civilized if chance determines a man’s guilt or innocence.

As well, the consequences of guilt or innocence can both be considered rather punishing, no matter if the accused is mauled to death by a tiger or tied to a marriage he didn’t want or choose. Is chance really a suitable judge, especially in matters of life or death? And how can either consequence possibly be viewed in terms of a fair trial in a civilized society that claims to value justice?The plot thickens when the handsome lover of the king’s daughter is brought to the arena. After the king discovers the love affair, the princess sets out to learn which door stands between her lover and the tiger, and which door stands between her lover and a beautiful young woman. (And by the way, this young woman has caught the lover’s eye in the past, giving the princess good reason to feel extremely jealous.) As the princess is also described as semi-barbaric, the tension rises as the lover stands in the arena and looks to the princess to guide him to the best outcome; which door will the semi-barbaric princess indicate? Will she be able to live with her lover alive but married to another woman, or will her savage jealousy lead her to point him towards a painful death?As readers ponder these questions, readers may decide for themselves that the king and the princess are actually not semi-barbaric at all: they are actually truly and wholly barbaric. Just as people we meet in life are often more complicated than they may seem at the outset, these fictional characters have more complex natures than a seemingly simple term like semi-barbaric suggests.

Stockton’s characterization of the king and the princess is only one of the literary elements that makes this story so interesting.

Lesson Summary

According to the dictionary definition of semi-barbaric, semi- means half and barbaric means savage or uncivilized. Barbaric is a word that comes from Ancient Greece, meaning brutal and cruel, which are adjectives that may not make perfect sense when combined with the prefix semi-.

So then why does Frank Stockton, the writer of ‘The Lady, or The Tiger?’, use the term to describe the king and his daughter? The author’s choice to describe his characters as semi-barbaric enhances the readers’ experience of the short story, as readers must consider these complex situations and answer the questions that surrounds the notion of semi-barbarism themselves.

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