Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
In “the very olden time,” a half-barbaric king, who was also half-civilized, because of the influence of his distant Latin neighbors, conceived a way of exercising justice on offenders against his rule. He placed his suspect in a Roman-like arena and had him choose to open one of either of two doors that would open into the arena. Behind one of the identical doors lurked a ferocious tiger that would leap out and devour the accused; behind the other door awaited a lovely maid who would, if her door was the one opened, come forth and be married at once to the opener. (It mattered not that the man may be married or otherwise committed, for the whimsical king would have his justice.) The fate was to be decided by chance alone, and no one who knew of the placement behind the doors was allowed to inform him which to elect.
All of this was popular among the audience, and even their thinking members could not deny that it was a fair test. The public experienced pleasing suspense and an immediate resolution. Best of all, everyone knew that the accused person chose his own ending.
Now it happened that a handsome young courtier dared to love the king’s daughter, who was lovely and very dear to her father. The man, however, though of the court, was of low station; his temerity was therefore an offense against decorum and the king. Such a thing had never happened in the kingdom before. The young lover had to be put into the arena to choose a door, a...
(The entire section is 613 words.)
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When "The Lady or the Tiger?" was first published in Century in 1882, it was a resounding success. Although Stockton had already published a novel and some other stories and would continue to publish for many years, "The Lady or the Tiger?" remained his most famous story. Originally he wrote the story, which he called "In the King's Arena," to provoke discussion at a literary party. The story sparked heated discussion, so Stockton expanded it and submitted it to Century, where it was accepted and re-titled by the editor.
"The Lady or the Tiger?" is a fantasy story that resembles a fairy tale. However, it is considered more whimsical and openended than most fairy tales. It involves a jealous princess, a vindictive king, and an ardent suitor—staple characters of fairy tales. In discussing romantic relationships, passion, self-interest, and reason, Stockton puts the princess at the center of a terrible choice: sending her lover to his death or letting him live and marry another woman. Her decision is left unrevealed at the story's conclusion. The abrupt ending gives the story both its power and its popularity; the reader is left to ponder the princess's decision and her lover's fate.
"The Lady or the Tiger?" begins with a description of a "semi-barbaric" king who rules his kingdom with a heavy hand. For punishing criminals, he has built an arena featuring two doors. The criminal must choose his own fate by selecting one of the two...
(The entire section is 1118 words.)
"The Lady, or the Tiger?" begins with a description of a "semi-barbaric" king who rules his kingdom with a heavy hand. For punishing criminals, he has built an arena featuring two doors. The criminal must choose his own fate by selecting one of the two closed doors. Behind one door is a hungry tiger that will eat the prisoner alive. Behind the other door is a beautiful lady, hand-picked by the king, who will be married to the accused on the spot. The people of the kingdom like this system of justice, because the uncertainty of the situation is very entertaining.
The king has a beautiful daughter whom he adores. She secretly loves a young man who is a commoner. When the king discovers her illicit affair, he throws the young man in jail to await his judgment. For a commoner to love the king's daughter is a crime, so the king searches for the most ferocious tiger and the most attractive lady (but not the princess, of course) for the young man's trial in the arena.
The day of the courtier's "trial" comes, and the young man walks into the arena, his eyes fixed on the princess. He looks to her for guidance, because he suspects that she has learned which door conceals the lady, and which the tiger. Indeed, the princess does know the identity of the young lady behind the door. She has been jealous of her for some time, thinking that she has sought to steal her lover from her. The princess signals for him to choose the right-hand door. Without...
(The entire section is 325 words.)