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 is the climax in "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

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The climax of the story comes when the young lover in the arena goes to the door indicated by the princess and opens it. Naturally the reader would expect to see whether the lady or the tiger emerged. But the author leaves that question unanswered forever. The following paragraph is the climax. 

He turned, and with a firm and rapid step he walked across the empty space. Every heart stopped beating, every breath was held, every eye was fixed immovably upon that man. Without the slightest hesitation, he went to the door on the right, and opened it.

Something undoubtedly happens, but we will never know what it was. It happened, as the author says, "In the very olden time." We don't wonder so much about what happened to the princess's young lover as we wonder about the princess herself. She gave her lover a swift and subtle signal to choose the door on the right.

No one but her lover saw her. Every eye but his was fixed on the man in the arena.

The lover's fate was dependent, not on his choice between the two doors, but on hers. That is really what we want to know because it would tell us about the princess and perhaps about women in general. Would she prefer to see her lover torn to pieces by a tiger or married on the spot to the beautiful rival whom she hates. If she lets her lover get torn to pieces, that spectacle would be over with quickly. But if she lets him marry the woman she hates, she would have to endure her jealousy for many years. The two would be happy together. They might have many children. And meanwhile the princess would have to settle for another man whom she might not even love and whose inferior qualities would be a continual reminder of the man she had lost.

The princess did not make up her mind on the spur of the moment. She had plenty of time to think about what she was going to do, although it only took her an instant to give her lover the signal to choose the door on his right. Like the princess, the reader is visualizing two possible outcomes for the trusting lover. The author himself speculates about the outcome after the climax is reached.

The more we reflect upon this question, the harder it is to answer. It involves a study of the human heart which leads us through devious mazes of passion, out of which it is difficult to find our way.

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What is fascinating about this story is that the princess has already given her lover the signal and he is already opening the door she indicated. This story is told as if it is an actual episode that occurred in history. So what we are left wondering is not what will happen but what did happen. Whatever it was, it happened a long time ago. Maybe it no longer matters because all the people involved would be dead. What we wonder is whether the princess let her lover be killed or whether she let him be married to her beautiful rival. Her choice seems to reflect on females in general. What would a contemporary woman do in the same circumstances? How do women think? Can they be trusted?

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The story actually ends in the climax, unlike most short stories.  Usually there is a complete plot diagram that is followed.  However, this story has a hanging ending.  That is why the climax is at the very end.  We do not know what is behind the door the princess has him open.  Because the story does not officially end for the reader, the falling action/resolution of the story is not presented to us.  The reader must choose his or her own ending.  Most students feel strongly one way or the other because of this ending.  They either love having the choice of the ending, or they hate that the story doesn't officially end for them. 

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