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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Who came out of the door, the lady or the tiger, in "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

The reader does not know who or what came out of the door in "The Lady, or the Tiger?" Stockton leaves the ending open to interpretation and does not explicitly tell the reader whether a lady or tiger came out of the door.

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The tiger comes out of the door, but it only does so after the story ends. Within the time-frame of the story, the door opens, and the audience is left waiting to see what will emerge. The author then describes the thoughts of the semi-barbaric princess, who has had to decide whether her lover will find happiness with another woman or be torn to pieces by a tiger.

The idea of the tiger killing the young man is admitted to be terrible, but the terror is dismissed in a brief paragraph consisting of a single sentence. A much longer paragraph then examines in detail how the princess had "gnashed her teeth, and torn her hair" at the thought of her beloved's relief at the joyful life he would lead with the lady, and how they would be married amidst general rejoicing:

Would it not be better for him to die at once, and go to wait for her in the blessed regions of semi-barbaric futurity?

It is clear which of the two options is the most horrifying for the princess. She, like everyone else in the story, is a flat character, and there is no complexity in the way she is drawn to suggest that compassion would win out over jealousy. Clearly, she chooses the tiger.

Or, perhaps not. The whole point of Stockton's story is that even the title is in the form of a question, intended to encourage debate. The case for the tiger is outlined above, but perhaps you can make a more compelling case for the lady. In either case, the reading and the discussion constitute the point.

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In the short story, Stockton does not explicitly state whether or not the young courtier chooses the door with the lady or tiger behind it, and the reader must decide for themselves what is behind the door he opens. The open ending forces the reader to examine the princess's motivation and feelings toward her lover.

In the story, the semi-barbaric king discovers his daughter's love affair with a young, handsome courtier and immediately appoints him to stand trial in his arena, where the young man will have the opportunity to choose a door that decides his fate. Agents of the king also select the most beautiful maiden in the kingdom to stand behind the door opposite of the room housing the tiger.

The princess goes out of her way to discover what is behind both doors and signals to her lover which door to choose as he stands in the arena. Before the young man opens the door, Stockton vividly describes the personality of the semi-barbaric, imperious princess and details her jealous nature and feelings towards the courtier and maiden's previous romantic interactions. The reader recognizes the princess's dilemma and understands that she will lose the courtier either way. Just before the young man chooses a door, Stockton ends the story by asking the reader to determine whether a lady or tiger came out from behind the door.

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Stockton purposely created an open-ended story where the ending is ambiguous and the reader must decide for themselves whether the princess instructed the courtier to open the door with the lady or the tiger behind it. The reader is forced to view the situation from the princess's point of view and cannot rely upon their own judgment.

Most readers would instruct the courtier to open the door with the beautiful maiden behind it in order to complete the pleasant love story. However, Stockton cleverly portrays the semi-barbaric princess as an extremely jealous woman, who hates the beautiful maiden for having the opportunity to marry her lover. By viewing the situation from the hostile, semi-barbaric princess's point of the view, the reader must interpret her motivations regarding whether to allow the courtier to live or lead him to certain death.

Overall, Stockton purposely leaves the ending open to interpretation, and the reader must decide which door the princess guided the courtier to open. Readers with a darker view of humanity tend to think the princess guided her beloved courtier to certain death by instructing him to open the door with the tiger behind it.

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The beauty of Frank R. Stockton’s “The Lady, or the Tiger?” is that the reader never does discover who, or what, is behind the door that the courtier opens at the end of the story. The princess does know which door the lady is behind, though, and even though she gives her lover a signal to open the right-hand door, the reader is still left with doubts.  The woman behind one of the doors is a rival of the princess for her lover’s favors, and the princess can’t bear the thought of her marrying her lover.

So, the decision is left up to the reader. The author first wrote the story to generate discussion at a party in the 1880’s, and he did such a great job with it that it still causes plenty of discussion to this day.


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As readers, we don’t know which door the Princess signals her lover to choose.  The story ends before it is told to us.  It’s a little frustrating as readers, but the purpose of the story is to get us to think about moral issues and choices that we make.  If the Princess signals the door with the beautiful woman, she loses her lover to another woman, but, at least, he remains alive.  If she nods towards the door with the tiger, her lover will certainly be killed, and she loses him forever.  So, it’s up to the reader to try to figure out what the Princess does.  Remember, she is described as a “barbarian Princess”, and is that enough to tell us that she would rather see her lover die than in the arms of another woman?  We are left to guess the answer. 

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This is very question that Frank Stockton, the author, proposes to the readers: 

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

Stockton directs the reader to consider analyses of characters before writing the denouement to his plot of "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

a study of the human heart which leads us through roundabout pathways of passion, of of which it is difficult to find our way.

As Stockton states, the question depends upon the nature of the princess: 

  • She is the daughter of a semibarbaric king, who has his "most florid fancies, and...a soul as fervent and imperious as his own."   
  • She loves the young man "with an ardor that had enough of barabarism in it tomake it exceedingly warm and strong.

On the other hand, the reader must also consider that

  • She possesses "a white heat beneath the combined fires of despair and jealousy." 
  • She has observed her young man talking with a beautiful girl who has thrown glaces of admiration upon him--or so the princess has imagined.
  • The princess sits pointing to a door; she sits there "paler and whiter than anyone in the vast ocean of anxious faces about her. 
  • The young man realizes that she knows who is behind which door, and he "understands her nature."

With these considerations, the reader is to make the decision.

Based upon your decision, and that the story is written in the style of a tradition fairy tale, but one that has a jarring stop to it, use the appropriate details and style in order to support your response.  Have fun with this brain-teaser.

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