In "The Lady, or the Tiger?," who is the protagonist?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In "The Lady or the Tiger?" it is the king who must be considered the protagonist. The story opens with a description of him.

In the very olden time there lived a semi-barbaric king, whose ideas, though somewhat polished and sharpened by the progressiveness of distant Latin neighbors, were still large, florid, and untrammeled, as became the half of him which was barbaric. 

It is this semi-barbaric king who conceives the idea of having an arena in which a prisoner must choose between two doors, one releasing a beautiful women who immediately becomes his wife, and the other releasing a tiger that kills and devours him. It was the king who had the arena built. It was the king who sentenced the current prisoner, his daughter's lover, to the arena where the story takes place. None of the events in the story would have occurred if the king had not been initially responsible.

The youth was immediately cast into prison, and a day was appointed for his trial in the king's arena. 

Since the king's daughter does not want her lover to be killed, she must be considered the antagonist. However, once her lover is in the arena she has to decide whether she wants him saved or killed by the tiger. In other words, if he were not placed in that situation she would want him to remain alive and to remain her lover. But does she want him marrying another woman, and a woman she hates? Her lover's fate is in her hands.

And not only did she know in which room stood the lady ready to emerge, all blushing and radiant, should her door be opened, but she knew who the lady was. It was one of the fairest and loveliest of the damsels of the court who had been selected as the reward of the accused youth, should he be proved innocent of the crime of aspiring to one so far above him; and the princess hated her.

The princess's lover trusts her completely. When she makes a "slight, quick movement" toward the right door with her hand, he goes to the door and opens it "without the slightest hesitation." The story ends without the reader being told what happened when he opened the door a long, long time ago. The author writes:

    Now, the point of the story is this: Did the tiger come out of that door, or did the lady?

Most readers have their guesses based on their interpretation of female psychology. But the story has puzzled and frustrated readers ever since it was published in The Century in 1882. Perhaps some English teacher should present an assignment for each student to write an ending to the story. It would be interesting to see how many students would have the handsome lover marry the beautiful lady and how many would have the tiger kill and eat the poor fellow.

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