This is a tale rather than a story. There is no dialogue; no one speaks to the reader but the narrator, who spins the yarn and asks the questions of interpretation at the end. He knows the story, but one senses that he does not have omniscience, that he is not there himself. He knows more than the populace and king, yet he does not know and will not reveal the outcome. That seems unfair—he leaves his readers dangling—but that is his purpose from the beginning. The story is a tour de force, hinging on a gimmick. What is annoying is that the narrator seems to know the ending but will not tell it.
However, the tale may be saved for the reader by the distance the author keeps from his material and the atmosphere of mystery that he maintains. He has heard the story, and it has amazed him with its mixture of the humane and the barbaric. If the plot is a teaser, are its psychological concerns also? In not letting the characters speak, in not even naming them, and in having their motivations generalized, the author approaches allegory—the allegory of logical human emotions. He turns the tale into a matter of “what would you do?” He turns outward from the story to the reader directly, thus placing emphasis on theme rather than on plot.
In not deeply developing his characters, holding them at arm’s length, he has made it impossible for one to know what they will do. One is told their motivations in general terms, but one does not experience the characters having them: One does not hear their words or glimpse their process of thought. Hence, the reader is not involved in the story. The characters in the tale are but once-upon-a-time people, representative but not real. When readers are asked at last to decide, on the basis of their personalities, what they will do, they are unable to respond but can say only what they would do or what people they have known would do. If the tale fails, it is in this aspect.
One can see that the king turned his fancies into facts, simplified them with his court of chance. He avoided the complexities of responsibility in the decisions by chance. His daughter turns facts into fancies (gold into information, and that information into what she fancies or wants—the right door). In other words, while the father simplifies, the daughter complicates, or takes on responsibility. With what ultimate intent does she do this? How cold or warm is she in her heart? One cannot know. The story lacks the nearness that readers require to answer the question Stockton asks them.
This story works the way a mystery story does, yet the necessary clues are not there. Hints are but hints, for they are canceled out: They do not add up or point in any direction. If “semi-barbarism” is to be looked to for a clue, it fails, because one does not know what “semi-barbarism” means. Not only are explanations of motivations lacking but also a corpse or an action that would shed light on the characters’ motivations.
Without its brevity and fast pace this story would have failed miserably. One moves directly from what the king is like to his testing procedure to the young couple’s affair to preparations for the trial and finally to the critical—and incomplete—choosing of the door, all in eighteen medium-sized paragraphs. One remains on the surface of the story, which is really a summary of events and the reasons for them. In place of dramatization there are posturings, as if the story were a slide show with lecturer—except that the lecturer wants the listener to finish for him.