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"The Lady or the Tiger?" by Francis Richard Stockton posits a quasi-mythical kingdom in which the king has absolute power. This king created an arena modeled on the Roman arenas. Criminals were placed in the arena and had to choose between two doors. Behind one door was a ferocious man-eating tiger and behind the other door was a beautiful woman. There was no way for the criminal to know which was behind which door, and thus the choice was random, rather like flipping a coin.
If the criminal chose the tiger, he would be killed and eaten. If he chose the woman, he would be obliged to marry her. One should note that this kingdom must either have lacked female criminals or permitted same-sex marriage for this system to be universally applicable.
In some ways, this is based on a notion that chance reflected the will of the gods, and echoes such practices as the Athenian selection of magistrates by lot.
When I was a lad, my brother read me this story (or perhaps directed me to read it). What we found so fascinating was the idea that the story has no ending; you never find out what was behind the door! So imagine my surprise when as a college class with my favorite English professor was ending for the day, he gave us all copies of the story and asked us to write a short paper giving our conclusion to the issue (was it the lady or the tiger?) with evidence and explanations to support our thesis. But that wasn't the end of the surprise: as we were about to walk out the door, he suddenly added, "And there IS a right answer!" Well, this was news to me; there certainly is no official right answer.
So I went back to my dorm, reread the story, underlining, writing notes in the margins, and so on, and finally came up with my "right" answer. And the funny thing was, the professor was correct! Now that I was a better reader, paying careful attention to the details and the characterization, it was absolutely obvious that there could only be one thing behind that door--and I'm NOT telling you!
So this taught me two interesting things: first, that what had seemed a rather cool idea, a story that had two endings and asked you to choose one for yourself, was really not what the story was about. It might have seemed that way to my elder brother and me as children, but that was really not the main "point" of the story. And second, that the skills one learns about how to read, to pay attention to details, to word choices, to characterization, perhaps (though maybe not in this case) to symbols--these are what the story is really about; this is what makes the story so fascinating. English teachers and professors call such skills "Close Reading." In a sense, by not "ending" the story, the author was presenting us with a brainteaser, a puzzle, but not one without an answer--rather the answer was there to be found if you knew how to look for it!
In another class with the same professor (when you find a good one, keep taking classes with that person if possible!), we read D.H. Lawrence's novel Sons and Lovers. I recall staying up late to finish the book on time and then reporting to the class. Now I'd read it, and tried to think about it; however, I was simply astounded by the brilliant lecture the professor gave explicating the book. I was so impressed that I went up to him after class and sort of complained: "I read it. I thought about it. And I didn't see any of that stuff you pointed out today in class until you pointed it out, and then I saw it was all true. What's wrong with me?" His answer was one of the most important moments in my education: "But you're only a freshman!" he said. "Maybe, by the time you graduate, you'll learn how to read a book."
Now I was a freshman in college at the time. So years later, when I became a high school teacher, I used to remind myself of this story and even tell my students about it. "I was a freshman in college; you are only sophomores in high school!" Still, my motivation in becoming a teacher was the hope that my students would know a lot more about how to read a book when they got to college than had been taught to me in high school. This is why teachers get frustrated when students ask, "But why can't we just read the story?" To an English teacher, the fun of reading a story isn't just the plot, or humor, or characters--the fun is analyzing the text and seeing things that other people who just "read the story" might miss.
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