two doorways with an elegant woman standing in one and a large tiger head in the other

The Lady, or the Tiger?

by Francis Richard Stockton

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What does the princess learn in "The Lady, or the Tiger?" by Frank Stockton?

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In "The Lady, or the Tiger?" by Frank Stockton, the princess learns the secret of the doors. She has discovered which door holds the lady behind it, and which door has the tiger behind it. With this information, she can give a signal to her lover as to which door he should pick. What we do not know is which door she will send him to, though we have some clues. We know, for example, that the princess is "semi-barbaric" like her father, the king. We also know that she despises the lady behind one of the doors. Does she love the accused enough to let him go and live as a man married to this woman she dislikes? Or would she rather see her lover torn to shreds by the tiger? It looks like we will never know the answer.

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The princess is present at the arena when her lover has to undergo his trial. She is perhaps the only person present who knows which of the two doors conceals the tiger and which conceals the beautiful lady. Even the king himself may not know what to expect. He may like guessing what will happen and being pleased with his intuition or surprised. The princess holds her lover's fate in her hands. This is the essence of this unusual story.

Possessed of more power, influence, and force of character than any one who had ever before been interested in such a case, she had done what no other person had done,--she had possessed herself of the secret of the doors. She knew in which of the two rooms, that lay behind those doors, stood the cage of the tiger, with its open front, and in which waited the lady.

The lover gives her a "quick and anxious glance," hoping against hope that she can answer his unspoken question, "Which?" She gestures "with a slight, quick movement toward the right." We are told at the beginning of the story that this happened "in the very olden time," that is, hundreds of years ago. Whatever occurred in the arena that day is long since over and done with. The lover would be dead anyway. So would the princess and her father. The story comes to an end just before the lover trustingly opens the door on the right.

Does it really matter what happened? What we want to know is whether the princess directed her lover to his death or to the arms of her beautiful rival. We want to know about the psychology of women. Would she rather see her lover alive and happy but married to another woman? Or would she rather see him torn to pieces and devoured by a tiger?  Was her lover right or wrong in trusting her? Would he have been wiser to open the other door instead? We can never know the answer because it happened so long ago.

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